To read on, please see the Billy Saddle Facebook Page.
To download the complete novel for Kindle (free sept. 27-28), go to Amazon.com.
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.”
He runs into Elena at Steve’s Doughnuts. She’s sitting in a booth, nibbling on an apple fritter. It feels like he’s run into a high school classmate, or a co-worker. The fritter is a hazard; he wants no part of guiltmongering.
“Hi!” she says. “Going on a mallwalk. Figured I better get some fuel.”
“Not sure I get the mallwalk idea.”
Elena smiles, a triangle of white between plump lips.
“Illusion. It doesn’t feel like exercise. It feels like you’re shopping.”
She dabs her mouth with a napkin and grabs her purse.
“Sorry, honey. Gotta dash. Running late.”
She struggles to her feet and kisses him on the forehead.
“Elena? Are you doing okay?”
“I’m doing fine. It’s a journey. That’s what they tell us: gear up for the long haul. Thank you for giving me the time for this, honey. You’re very sweet.”
“Hey, I’ve got my sidekick, Pablo.”
She squeezes his shoulder. “Thank God for those boys. Well! Gotta fly.”
“See you later.”
David watches her walk toward the car. Maybe it’s the warmup suit – a bright mauve that does her no favors – but he could swear that she’s gotten bigger.
Billy bites into a jelly-filled and smiles.
“Wow! That’s good. The usual swap?”
“Yes please!” says David. The soup is curry again, but now with Swiss chard, water chestnuts and amorphous clusters of pure ocean.
“What the hell is that?”
“Oyster. Abbey got some at Lytle’s.”
“Mammamia. Sort of funky and glorious all at once.”
“So what you’re saying is that oysters are much like James Brown.”
Billy runs his finger along a jelly-leak and licks it off. “I have this vision: the Eternal Gumbo. You just take what ingredients come your way and you throw them in. The stew changes every day, but it retains little bits of its history.”
David chuckles. “A gumbo with history. I don’t know.”
“Okay, so you boil it every morning to keep out the nasties.”
Billy peers outside at the harbor, a warm overcast laced with drizzle.
“So it sounds like this thing with your wife is bugging you.”
“It would bug me a lot. You made a deal with her, you made a sacrifice, and she’s not holding up her end.”
“Okay,” says David. “Allow me to spin you a metaphor. Y’got yerself an Eternal Gumbo, and maybe one day you throw in some geoduck, without really knowing what geoduck is, and when you take a bite you realize, Damn! I don’t like geoduck at all. And now you’re screwed, because you can’t go backward on an Eternal Gumbo, and this one is just filthy with geoduck. But here’s the thing: the overall stew still tastes pretty good – and back in May you felt like you might never have gumbo again – so once in a while you make a face, spit a piece of geoduck into your napkin and keep eating.”
Billy laughs. “You didn’t just stretch that metaphor. You hyperextended it. And what the hell is a geoduck?”
“It’s a large mollusk common to the Puget Sound. Looks like a big gray penis.”
“That sounds tasty.”
“Had a friend, worked in a geoduck cannery.”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“I always wondered, if she was so good at handling geoducks…”
Billy unleashes that high-pitched laugh, and David counts his metaphor a winner. He thinks of asking him about Abbey, but he considers his interest in her to be unhealthy. He’s had dreams – endless rewrites of the Weight Room Incident, none of them appropriate for family viewing.
Abbey shows up at the game with a box of blue T-shirts. It’s the shirt the tourists wear, In Case of Tsunami on the front, Run Like Hell! on the back. The players descend on them like crows on roadkill.
“Ilani Gifts,” she says. “Five bucks a pop. I figured this team needed a uniform.”
Billy performs a quick swap with his Cardinals shirt, revealing a surprisingly good tan. “This team also needs a name.”
“How about the Tsunamis?” says Pablo.
“I don’t know,” says David. “Kind of a sore spot around here.”
Derek pokes his head through his collar. “How about Run Like Hell?”
He’s greeted with a rousing mob affirmative.
“There you go,” says David.
The ensuing game is more like Hit Like Hell. Continuing the mantra of low and hard, the team scores 14 runs in the first inning. What’s more amazing is that their opponents, a notoriously weak team called The Chumps, contribute not a single error to the onslaught.
Although Run Like Hell suffers the inevitable let-down after this deluge, come the bottom of the fifth they are one run away from sending The Chumps home on the ten-run mercy rule. With two outs, bases loaded and Billy in the battter’s box, David calls time.
“Blue! Got a sub. Derek Falter for Billy Redman.”
Billy can’t resist the comic possibilities. “Geez, Coach – I told you I’d pay you that ten bucks on Friday.”
Pablo goes to the end of the bench and nudges his brother. “Yo! Dimwad. You’re up.”
Derek looks up from his scorekeeping. “I’m… huh?”
“You’re up! Here – use this.”
He hands him his green-and-silver Easton, purchased that very day in Aberdeen. Derek takes the grip in his hands. “Nice!”
“Two tips,” says Pablo. “One: see ball, hit ball. Two: leave your brain in the dugout.”
“Now I know why you’re such a good player.” Derek flees for the batter’s box before Pablo can smack him. His Dad shouts a neutral cheer from the box (“Humnow, get a good one, D”). Billy stands behind the backstop, clapping. The players in the field look tired, ready to call it a night, but pride demands that they try to earn another inning.
Derek takes a breath and runs his ritual. Dig a notch with the back foot, tap the plate, give the bat a left-hand loop and cock it over his shoulder. He decides to take a pitch, just to get his timing, to make sure he’s not too eager. The pitcher, a thin, long-haired rocker dude, stands with his feet together and makes a precise bowling motion. The ball loops up and lands an inch behind the plate.
His dad claps encouragingly. “All right D, you seen him now. Get your pitch, get your pitch.”
He gets back in, ready to swing, but the ball drifts inside and he steps back.
“Good eye, good eye.”
This one, he thinks. Anything close. This removes the thinking, puts his brain back in the dugout. The ball arrives knee-high on the inside corner. Derek takes a swipe. He makes contact a few inches up from the grip and sends a slow roller up the third-base line. He has rehearsed every possibility in his head; this one calls for him to run first and ask questions later.
The scene he leaves behind is pure chaos. Merzy charges for the plate, performing a tidy leap over the ball. The third baseman arrives two steps behind, but the pitcher shouts him off: “Let it go! Let it go!” He lifts his glove and passes to the right, then spins around, the two of them tracking the ball down the line like schoolkids following an ant. The ball begins to trickle foul but runs out of steam, coming to a halt two feet short of the bag, square in the center of the chalk. The two fielders stare at it, hoping for some miracle gust of wind, but finally look at each other, shrug their shoulders and head to the mound for handshakes.
“Game!” says the blue.
Run Like Hell lets out a cheer marked by laughter, and Pablo races to first to pummel his little brother. They join the line of handshakes and end up at third, where their father is bent over the ball, fixed in its place like a museum piece.
“Son, I wouldn’t want to accuse you of treachery, but have you been practicing this?”
“Even better,” says Derek. “I implanted a remote-control device.”
David snatches it up and shows it to the ump. “Carl! How much you want for this thing?”
Carl waves him off. “It’s all yours!”
“All right,” says David. “Let’s get this thing autographed.”
The players gather in the bleachers, passing around a Sharpie pen. David feels a hand taking his, and the familiar gardenia scent of Abbey’s perfume.
“You are such a good father.”
“Says the woman with the magic T-shirts.”
He gives her hand a squeeze and, much as he hates to, lets go.
The roll continues into the next game, but this one has more to do with defense. Sparked by Billy’s example, the outfielders have taken to backing each other up, which allows the front man to play aggressor. Pablo dives for a line drive and misses it, but finds Phillie right behind him, gathering the hop and holding the runner to a single. Two innings later, Pablo dives at the same spot and gets it, soaring so high it looks like he’s gone off a springboard. Merzy joins the fun with a ball directly in front of him. He launches a gleeful swan dive, manages only to trap the ball, but performs a body-roll throw to get the force at second. All these bonus outs are pure cheesecake to David, who responds to the challenge by turning himself into a hockey goalie, stopping three shots up the middle, one to start a double play.
Come the sixth inning, David is nursing a 7-0 shutout, unheard-of in slowpitch. The first batter lifts an easy fly to Merzy, but the play produces an unexpected offshoot: Billy drops to a knee, inspecting his left leg. He waves and calls out “Derek!” then limps to the foul line as Derek covers his position.
Their opponents get a couple of singles, and David’s shutout is looking fragile. The next batter hits a comebacker, but David bobbles it and has to settle for the out at first. Their cleanup hitter strokes a long fly to right. Derek tracks it in the textbook style, running back and toward the line as he eyes the ball over his right shoulder. He does it so well, in fact, that he arrives early – which for Derek is not necessarily a good thing. With time to think, he begins to look unsteady, as if he were made of paper.
During the course of the flight, David jogs to the dugout, and is sitting on the bench when the ball smacks into Derek’s glove.
Lemke jogs over from first and says, “You know something we don’t?”
David smiles. “They call him Scary Derek.”
Derek arrives from right field and Lemke shouts out “Scary Derek!”
Thus are nicknames handed down.
David wanders plateward to make the official substitution. He returns to find Billy at the end of the bench, holding his leg straight out.
“Damnedest thing. I was just planting a foot to back up Merzy and I swear, it was like somebody threw a rock and hit me in the calf. I was actually looking around to see who did it. Further investigation, of course, reveals that it was an inside job.”
“Damn. Pulled muscle. And I don’t have any ice.”
Abbey appears at the dugout fence. “We better get you home. I’ll pull up the truck.”
“Well it’s just another inning…”
“No, I’m with Abbey,” says David. “Let’s get some ice on it as soon as possible. And ibuprofen, if you got it.”
“Alas,” says Billy. “I am outvoted. Go ahead, Abbey. I’ll start crawling toward the road. Nice catch, Derek!”
Derek gives him a wave, and grabs Pablo’s Easton for another at-bat. David takes up the scorebook, picking up a snatch of Billy’s grumbling as he limps away: “…never shoulda gotten so damn old.”
Abbey lives on the harbor side of the peninsula. On clear days she can see Mt. Rainier, a tiny Mozartean wig on the green line of the Cascades. The house is a modest prefab ranch, but the front accords a long covered porch that David has always envied. The yard offers signs of feminine residence: a whirligig roadrunner, his legs circling in the wind; packed flowerboxes hung from the porch railing; an enormous birdfeeder across from the kitchen window. The only masculine marker is the knocker, a brass duck’s head that slams against a receiving plate. Abbey opens the door, dangling two beers on a plastic ring.
“Now that you mention it, a beer sounds great!”
“Are you injured?”
“Then forget it. Come on in.”
“How’s the patient?”
“I think all the excitement and drugs have made him sleepy. Were you intent on a face-to-face?”
“No. Just checking up.”
“Ah. Wait here.”
She heads down the hall with the beers, leaving him to roam the living room, a clutter of autumn-colored walls and bookshelves. The star attraction is a sunset panorama of the Chicago skyline four feet wide, two feet high, signed with one of those limited-edition numbers, 123/2000. David takes a visual walk along the waterfront and arrives at a small copper frame of leaves and acorns. The paper has two horizontal creases, as if it’s been mailed; the letters are inconsistently inked, indicating the use of a manual typewriter (the historian/detective is everpresent).
Because I am My Mother’s Daughter
I scrape the innards from peanut butter jars
until the glass screams for mercy
against the pressure of the knife
Because I am my mother’s daughter,
I choke the life from toothpaste tubes,
coaxing that final evacuation
from their last breath
Soap chips are mashed together into mutant, incestuous life forms
Bottles of hand lotion and ketchup are stood on their heads to drain
their vital fluids
All this because her mother was served stewed cabbage and boiled
potatoes as a child while dairy cows grazed in nearby fields
At my grandma’s bedside, as the ends of her S-shaped spine
reach around to try and touch each other,
we listen to their lowing, and she tries to forget
the taste of sweet cream she never had in her coffee
The name at the bottom is Abigail Meriwether Saddle.
“Come on,” says Abbey. “Let me show you something.”
She walks him outside to an old porch swing of rough-hewn blonde wood. Its backboard offers three carved figures: the north wind blowing a frosty cloud, Apollo driving his chariot and, at center, one of those art deco suns with outshooting rays and a Mona Lisa smile.
“Abbey! It’s gorgeous.”
“Family heirloom.” She sits down in the bohemian manner, folding a foot under her leg. “Poor thing was stacked up in the tool shed ever since we got here. I finally found a woodworker in Oyhut to strip it and stain it. Join me.”
Sitting next to a one-armed woman presents certain strategic considerations, but David is distracted by the way that Abbey said “we” – meaning “Randy and I” – without so much as a stutter. Map-wise, she is east of the sun, so he ends up west, her stub between them, under the flap of a Run Like Hell T-shirt.
“I was reading your poem. It’s great.”
Abbey smiles “I thought you were. Thanks.”
“I generally dislike modern poems. They too often contain many beautiful words that say absolutely nothing. Your poem, however. Decades of blood history in a handful of stanzas. And the words – the placement, the usage. As if you chiseled it from a block of marble.”
She laughs. “I worked on that fucking thing my entire freshman year. I took it out every Friday, changed a comma, switched a gerund to an inifinitive – switched it back, put it back in the drawer. When I went three Fridays without any changes, I sent it off. My first published poem. Many Mountains Moving.”
“Jesus. Even I’ve heard of that one. Your classmates must have hated you.”
She widens her eyes for emphasis. “I never told them. At the end of my sophomore year, I dropped it rather casually into my bio for the student anthology. That way, they had an entire summer to just get over it.”
“Wow. I’m picking up a hint of animosity.”
“Writers are by and large introverted mindfucking assholes who will do anything to piss all over their peers. Do you know how much time I spend unwinding the preposterous notions my students have picked up from self-declared experts? ‘It ain’t poetry unless it rhymes.’ ‘The present tense is just a gimmick.’ During finals week, my star pupil declared that exclamation points have been officially banned from narrative fiction! I’m trying to open their minds, these fuckers are trying to slam them shut!”
“Wow,” says David. “I’ve never seen you so pissed.” (“It’s turning me on,” he doesn’t say.)
“This is why I hang out with musicians and history teachers.” She reaches into a wooden box beneath Apollo and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.
“Oh give it up, Mr. Clovebreath. Here.” She hands him a stick, lights them both, and exhales in a zig-zag, coating the horizon. The smoke dissipates to reveal a field of stars, losing ground to a Viking fog.
“During my coming-out period, when I was finally ready to ditch the grief, I would come out here every evening and allow myself one cigarette’s worth of heart-rending sobbery, and then I would see about getting back to the present.”
“Hmm. I guess I was doing the same. In a manly, non-sobbing kind of way.”
Abbey chuckles. “And here I thought you were just being an effete poseur.”
“I knew it!”
“The kids, they know these things. But enough of this! Did you get your shutout?”
David laughs, releasing a cloud of smoke. “Those poor schmucks felt so snakebit, they hit three straight one-hoppers back to the mound. It was pathetic.”
“Good. Billy’ll like that.”
Abbey angles herself so she can rest her head on David’s shoulder. They smoke in silence as the fog grows closer.
“That name on your poem.”
“Yeah. I don’t think I’ll allow anyone to call me ‘Abigail’ again until I’m seventy.”
Abbey tosses her cigarette into the yard and transitions to teacher-voice as she walks her fingers up David’s chest.
“As you know, class, Meriwether Lewis got his first name from the maternal side of his family. And I am related to him.”
“Holy shit. You’re like… royalty.”
Abbey takes the cigarette from David’s mouth and flicks it away. She brings her face dangerously close to his.
“Then treat me like it.”
David leans forward and keeps going, propelled to his feet by a wave of guilt and habit. Abbey tumbles to the bed of the swing and lies there horizontal, as she berates him in a whispered shout.
“Christ, David! Stop being a saint. Your fat wife is making you work your ass off so she can stay fat. I don’t want anything from you. Seriously. But if you and I are alone on a dark porch with a fantastic alibi sleeping in the back of room with a bag of ice on his leg… Fuck! Allow the both of us a few measly moments of pleasure.”
The fog has arrived, adding to their camouflage. He paces toward the front door.
David stops. His cigarette has landed on the bird feeder, a tiny ship on a sea of cracked seed. He picks it up, takes a long drag and hurls it into the yard. He walks back to the swing, kneels on the porch and covers Abbey’s lips with his.
The lies we tell ourselves. That one thing will not lead to another. That meetings by chance will not progress to meetings by plan.
“Come on, Dad. Have you seen anything resembling business? Go ahead! Build up some bulk so you can throw those slow pitches even slower.”
Pablo flashes his goofy grin – the one that erases all the flaws in his face – and David is on his way. As always, he feels conned. The kid is too smooth. He’s probably slipping pot brownies into the mudslide ice cream.
Like I’m one to talk, thinks David. As soon as he pulls onto Chance La Mer he’s on his cell phone, conjuring faeries: Gym 2 p.m. He has completed a dozen half-hearted bench presses when Abbey enters, casually tosses her shirt and bends over to offer him a breast: apple-size, spiced with cinnamon freckles, a nipple the color of croissant. A minute of suckle, sigh and catch-breath, he smiles. “Dispensing with the preliminaries.”
“What if I just sat on your face?”
“Nope. Still married.”
“Short-sheeted by ethos! Just for that, I will work out topless and drive you insane.”
She begins by touching her toes, which leaves her small, ripe ass inches from his face.
“Where’d you meet her?”
“Classmate. Her parents were from that strange generation that decided they should raise kids that weren’t too obviously Mexican. You’ve seen Elena – how was that supposed to happen?”
“At home, they spoke nothing but Ingles. Elena got tired of not being able to speak to her abuelita, so – Spanish class. She assumed it would be in her blood, kept trying to skip the hard steps – conjugations, genders, vocabulary. So it was up to the gringo in the next desk to act as her speedbump, tutor, novio, esposo, padre de sus hijos. I still speak better than her. You should have seen our trip to Cabo. How about you? You and Randy.”
Abbey spreads her legs and moves her face to one knee.
“I don’t know if I should tell you, Man Who Does Not Screw.” She smiles between her legs, her breasts dangling like water balloons, her crotch covered by bare millimeters of lycra.
“Look at it,” she whispers. “It’s all yours. You could reach right up there and grab it.”
David takes the bar and goes back to pressing. “Domine deus, agnus dei, salvet factotum Erin go bragh…”
“Asshole.” She grabs a foot and holds it behind her back, which causes her breasts to point to the ceiling.
“Randy liked you. He’d be telling you to go ahead. He’d be happy for us.”
David lowers the bar till the weights click back in.
“Randy’s not the issue, honey. My family is. Now let’s enjoy what we’ve got and stop getting ahead of ourselves.”
Abbey drops her foot, lowers her head in a posture of shame and says, “I’m sorry, Professor Falter. But sometimes I get nasty thoughts.”
She cups a breast and begins a self-massage.
David closes his eyes and reaches for the bar. He is going to explode.
Billy in the bleachers is not the same as Billy in the field. The team has lost its fire; they’re not doing the small things, they’re not playing smart. Batting in Billy’s number-six spot, Pablo comes up with bases loaded and two outs and can’t resist the big jackpot. He yanks the ball to left, a deep fly that accomplishes a big fat zero. Maintaining a life-long pledge to not become his father, David says nothing.
Their opponents begin the next inning with a grounder to second and a fly to short. The next batter lifts a fly to right and Derek reveals the dark side of his nickname, clanking the ball off his glove for a double.
It starts to rain. On the Rain Coast, in the sixth inning, this changes nothing. Down by eight runs, facing a cleanup hitter who looks like Paul Bunyan, David is tempted to serve up a gopher ball and send everybody to their nice dry homes. Mr. Bunyan has the same idea. He coils like a python and unleashes a windmill swing. The ball goes straight up. The spin carries it behind the backstop, where it smacks the cement and takes a high hop. It’s about to clear the bleachers when Billy, seated at the top left-hand corner, reaches up for a barehand grab.
David expects a quick throw-back but Billy is frozen, staring at the ball as if he’s expecting secret messages.
“Last ball,” says the ump. “Need that one.”
Oh well, thinks David. Homeless ballplayers – gotta expect the occasional flashback. He jogs to the bleachers and slaps his glove on Billy’s shoe. Billy looks down like he’s seen a ghost.
“Billster! Can I get the ball back?”
Billy looks at the ball as if it has just appeared in his hand.
He drops it into David’s glove, then stares toward right field, his eyes all spacey. David’s relieved to see Abbey returning from the truck.
David takes the mound and finds that now he’s distracted. Something about the high hop, the barehanded catch, looping through his head like an instant replay. He shakes it out, taps the rubber and delivers the pitch. This time, Paul Bunyan doesn’t miss. He crushes the ball, a majestic drive toward the spruce trees in left. It’s the drive that killed Larry. David summons his superpowers and blows the ball toward the woods. A name pops into his head.
Although the ball is forest-bound, so is Pablo. Merzy shouts a warning, but Pablo seems to know what he’s doing. He finds a treeless gap and bounds into a patch of ferns. He’s a freakin’ explorer.
Twenty feet along, his eye still on the ball, Pablo comes up against a broad spruce. He’s out of room. He takes hold of a low branch, digs his cleats into the rough bark and launches himself. At the apex of his leap, he pockets the ball, slams against the tree, and lands with his armpit firmly wrapped around the branch. Dangling there, he discovers that his glove is pregnant, and holds up his trophy.
On a night when nothing else is going well, Run Like Hell goes nuts. For that matter, so do their opponents. People will talk about this play; no one’s seen anything like it. Kirk Gibson’s home run, Willie Mays’s catch. Pablo jumps into the ferns and takes a theatrical bow. Paul Bunyan makes a comic show of slamming his bat to the ground. Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Don Larsen’s perfect game. Babe Ruth’s called shot.
The Curse of the Bambino. Bucky Fucking Dent. Bill Buckner. The Curse of the Billy Goat. Moises Alou. Alex Gonzalez. Steve Bartman. The Memphis Blues. Big John’s Curse. Duffy’s Drop. The Grand Fool Double.
David’s spell is broken by Pablo, who slaps him on the arm.
“Geez, Dad. What’d I do? Put you in shock?”
“Oh, um. Yeah. Great catch, Pablo. Wow.”
They jog to the dugout, where Run Like Hell has vowed a comeback that will not materialize. David looks to the bleachers, where Abbey and Billy are huddling beneath an umbrella.
One of the few happy circumstances in the history of the Memphis Blues is its name. Long before anyone knew the crucial role that negro music would play in the life of the city, the Blues were named for the color of their uniforms, in the manner of the Cincinnati Redlegs or the Chicago White Sox.
Interestingly, one of the first to recognize the appeal of the music was the team owner, Sal Withers, who began to bring negro musicians to his Bijou Hotel in the early ‘20s. Since he was already flouting the law by selling illegal hooch, Withers saw little added risk in introducing “race music.” When he discovered that the new music shared a name with his ballclub, he liked the idea even more.
The biggest draw among the blues players was Big John Spillums, a guitarist and singer from New Orleans. In 1924, three months after the Blues won their second straight World Series, Spillums played a full month at the Bijou and packed them in, every night. At the end of the month, when he went to collect his final week’s pay, he was told he wouldn’t be getting it.
“Lodgin’ fees,” said the manager. “Meals, drinks, toiletries. Did you think these things came free of charge?”
“I was told specifically that they were,” said Big John. “I made you people a fortune.”
“Nonsense. Those people are here for the gin. We could have a string quartet, for all they care.”
“Now you know that ain’t true. I got people comin’ all the way from St. Louis to see me!”
The bartender, a big Irishman with a face like an old cheese, appeared at the manager’s shoulder, smacking a billy club against his palm.
“This nigger givin’ you trouble, boss?”
Big John, well-acquainted with white justice, decided he’d best be content with his three weeks’ pay. He was standing outside in the rain, planning his next move, when Sal Withers’ Pierce-Arrow pulled up.
“Mr. Withers!” said Big John. “There’s been a mistake, sir. They took out my last week’s pay.”
But Big John, whose size always made him look more threatening than he was, was standing too close for the liking of Withers’ driver, Jimmy Collins. Collins shoved Big John into the mud. What was worse, Big John landed on his guitar, smashing it to pieces. Sal Withers turned at the top of the stairs to admire Jimmy’s work.
Big John struggled to his feet. Seeing the remains of his beloved instrument, he turned to Withers and called out in a voice bolstered by years of singing in juke joints. It was said that half of Memphis could hear him.
“You done it now, Withers! That ball team o’ yours ain’t never gonna win again! You done messed with the wrong man!”
Withers laughed, and walked inside. Big John left his guitar where it lay and headed for the train station.
His words would have disappeared into the gumbo of history, were it not for Duffy’s Drop. That very season, Duffy Webster, the best oufielder in the league, dropped an easy fly ball that would have iced the pennant. The Blues lost their last two games, and the Boston Braves went to the Series. Such a horrific turn of events had to have a cause. When Memphis sportswriter Pops Caulkins dug up the tale of Big John Spillums, the bluesman with the voodoo powers, the fans ate it up like Crackerjacks.
The Drop was followed by Bob’s Big Boot in 1947 and the sixth-game collapse in the ’58 Series. In 1964, Teddy James took Skip Henry’s Doofus Pitch – a high, arcing slowball that had not once in ten years been hit over a fence – and homered to win a three-game tiebreaker. In 1983, a team-wide outbreak of the flu caused the Blues to waste a seven-game division lead in the last ten days.
In 1998, Memphis had what many considered its best team ever: Ted Fitzsimmons in center, Pasco Fernandez at short, Richie Campbell firing 97-mile-per-hour heaters from the mound. Memphis fans loosened up the scar tissue around their hearts and began to take a few perilous steps toward hope.
In the opening series, the Blues made short work of the Marlins, sweeping them in three games. In the championship series against the Cardinals, they quickly built a lead of three games to one, but lost the fifth game behind their weakest pitcher, Peter Kowalevski.
Still, things were looking good, because Blues manager Fred Silvestri had made an unusual gamble. In Game 4, the Blues opened a 9-0 lead after three innings, and Silvestri took the extraordinary move of pulling Campbell, letting his highly regarded bullpen put the icing on an 11-3 cake. Now, Silvestri was ready to cash in: a rested Campbell, all set to put the final touches on a Series championship.
Richie, however, was strangely off his game, struggling to find the tiny strike zone of home plate umpire Tony Canigula. The Cards answered with knuckleballer Augie Stephens, whose pitches were dipping and dunking like drunken mosquitoes.
The Blues managed to stay within striking distance, behind 4-2, and found their opening in the eighth inning. Stephens suddenly lost his touch, walking the first two batters, and they put in reliever Pedro Piñon. Piñon got the first out on an infield pop, then Brent McCarthy singled to score the runner from second. Cal Davis struck out, leaving the Blues behind 4-3, with two outs and men on first and third.
On the first pitch, Pasco Fernandez reached out and slashed the ball down the right-field line. It landed a foot fair, spun to the right, then struck the bullpen mound and took a high hop toward the stands.
Withers Field is a quirky old place, and there along the foul line the stands jut out at an odd angle. Through the years, a handful of right fielders found themselves in situations where they couldn’t throw home – because they couldn’t see home.
Seated at the high left-hand corner of this impediment was a Memphis jazz singer named Billy Saddle. Saddle was the only one of 45,000 fans who had a chance at this unusual ramp-shot. Sadly for Blues fans, he also had some skills, having played ball in college.
In a standard situation, once a ball has crossed the invisible plane between field and stands, all bets are off – and the spectators are free to pursue every fan’s dream of the ultimate souvenir. But Billy Saddle had not thought out the unique nature of his position. A careful perusal of the replay (one of the most-watched replays in baseball history) reveals the outcome. Saddle extends upward for a beautiful barehanded grab. He immediately clutches his prize and turns around – perhaps anticipating the pummeling often given to catchers of valued baseballs. From this vantage he can see past the back railing, down onto the field – which is precisely where the ball would have landed had he not interfered with it. Saddle’s face takes on an expression of shock and anguish that is difficult to watch.
McCarthy, the runner on first, was a speedster. With two outs, he was off at the crack of the bat, and would easily have scored the go-ahead run. The reaction from the hometown crowd was immediate and angry. As a squadron of security guards escorted Saddle from the stadium, fans pelted him with hot dogs, beer, chocolate malts and whatever else they could get their hands on.
The ground rule double left McCarthy at third. Fitzsimmons flied out to end the inning. The Cards scored in the top of the 13th to take the game, then beat the Blues 8-2 the next day to take the pennant.
Billy Saddle was the most hated man in Tennessee, perpetrator of a crime some radio host deemed the Grand Fool Double. Someone published his address and phone number on the Internet, and he received a steady stream of death threats. A regiment of six patrol cars was assigned to his house, and the FBI offered to place him in their witness protection program. The mayor of St. Louis offered sanctuary, as well.
There were some who came to his defense. His Little League team marched outside Withers Field with banners of support for their coach. Several Blues players called it a freak incident, and blamed themselves for not winning the game long before. Reporters noted that Saddle was a devoted fan who had gone to Florida the year before to watch the team in spring training.
Saddle did what he could to quell the uproar. He submitted an apology, declaring the incident “the most dismal, agonizing moment of my life.” He turned down interviews, book deals and requests for autographs – anything that might look like an attempt to cash in on his infamy.
It didn’t matter. The threats continued, Saddle was unable to leave his house, and he seemed to have no chance at regaining a normal life – at least, not in Memphis. By the time pitchers and catchers reported for spring training in 1999, Billy Saddle had vanished.
Today, Blues fans visit that right-field abutment – now called the Saddlehorn – as if it’s a tourist attraction. Saddle’s seat is covered with Blues stickers, perhaps one more attempt to drive away the curse of Big John Spillums.
David worries that Billy is pushing his luck, but Billy promises he will run at 80 percent. These plans go immediately to hell. The second baseman dives into the hole to knock down Billy’s grounder, and Billy has to pull a stiff-legged sprint to beat it out. He returns to the base with a chagrinned smile and turns down a courtesy runner. The test came early, and he passed.
Reunited with their sparkplug, Run Like Hell piles up eight runs in its first at-bat, and follows up with a 1-2-3 inning in the field. Given the luxury of a good start, the manager turns his thoughts to larger matters. At a time when he should be working on lesson plans and reading assignments, he spent the week researching the Grand Fool Double, and even tracked down a video of Billy’s old quartet. If that beardless face didn’t confirm his identity, the sound of that voice removed all doubt.
David is unfamiliar with the care and feeding of secrets. He has always led an open life. But now he’s conducting his first extramarital affair (sexless, but still an affair), and cradling a nugget of historical knowledge that approaches folklore. He has to do something with it. Doesn’t he? He heads for the bleachers, and his only safe harbor.
“Your team’s looking good.”
“It’s your uncle. He’s quite the catalyst.”
Abbey’s face freezes. David thinks it best to free her from further acting. He sits down and whispers, “Billy Saddle.”
“How’d you find out?”
“Damn! Betrayed by literature.”
“Yeah, yeah. Very cute.”
Abbey takes a long breath and surveys the immediate surroundings.
“My new husband and I are sitting in a cantina in Cabo San Lucas, when I look up and see Billy on the TV. I had the horrible feeling I would never see him again. Ten years later, I wake up in a hospital and there he is. I was certain I had gone to the other side.
“He was in a library in Seattle. He put my name into a search engine and got this awful news report. I didn’t play fair at all. I told him I needed him to stay. So we set up the phony homeless act. You haven’t told anyone?”
She chews on a nail. Oscar flies to left for out number three.
“Shit. Gotta go.”
“Don’t say anything,” she says. “Let me tell him.”
“Gents! Pizza’s on me.”
This is Pablo, standing on the dugout bench. David’s a little surprised, but a 4-for-4 with a home run will tend to make one forget one’s minimum wage. The drivers of Run Like Hell convoy directly west to Laney’s Pizza. Pablo is greeted by Art Laney himself, who races around the counter to lift him in a hug.
“The hero returns! It’s so good to see you. Is this the team?”
Pablo laughs. “Fat chance, old man! This is the family. We’ve got ten more coming, and they’re ravenous. We’re gonna bankrupt this joint.”
Laney grins. “For my favorite employee, I will gladly go out of business. You want to make it yourself?”
Laney gives Pablo’s soiled uniform the once-over. “Yes, but for God’s sake, wash your hands and wear an apron.”
“You think that’s bad,” says Pablo. “You should see how he makes doughnuts.” He horse-laughs and heads for the bathroom.
“An old joke,” says Laney. “I’ve never seen a kid so in love with pizza.”
David and Derek head for the back room, where they shove a couple of tables together. Laney brings four pitchers of beer. David watches from the head of the table as each player takes his first post-game quaff (one of the loveliest experiences in life) and lets out a sigh. Derek heads off to the arcade, and Abbey takes the opening to hold David’s hand under the table. He catches a glimpse of the closet where he found Pablo that night and refuses to let it penetrate.
Billy comes by and taps him on the shoulder. “Hey, coach. Join me for a smoke?”
David assumes it’s a ruse, but it’s not. Just out the back door, Billy lights up and hands him a clove cigarette.
“My niece bought that just in case you wanted one. That’s how she is. Let’s head out a little. I don’t necessarily want to share.”
The lot between Laney’s and the bank is enormous – Ocean Shores being ready at all times for Woodstockian invasions. The half-moon leaves a dull trail across the blacktop. Billy takes a drag and releases it skyward.
“I really fucked up, David. Don’t think I don’t curse myself fifty times a day for grabbing that goddamn ball. I’m a fan, I should know better. My punishment, however, has been… unconstitutional.”
“Cruel and unusual?”
Billy smiles. “I knew you’d get that. I sat in that house for months, the hatred of an entire city gathered at the windows like humidity. It was unbearable. I had to go.
“The way I did it… pure genius. Had a friend, Frankie Minor, owned a delivery pizza service. That man loved me so much… he took one of his own delivery cars, big triangular sign on top – came to the door wearing a Rasputin beard, fake glasses, holding the biggest warming case he could find. We switch clothes – the company jacket, the baseball cap – load up the pizza case with a few meager possessions, I get in the car and I drive west. Drove all night; felt like I was skipping bail. Tossed the pizza sign into a ditch, and I finally had to pull over at a rest stop outside of Amarillo. I woke up at noon, it was cold but sunny. Got out of my car and stretched like a natural man. I swear, three months of knots crackled free in my muscles. It felt like freedom. I will never take it for granted ever again.”
Billy stops talking for a long time. David knows better than to interject. He is a little bit in awe; he’s never known an actual historical figure.
“People have found me out before, and it was pretty simple: I moved on. Once you learn the disappearing trick, it gets easier. Problem is…”
Billy ducks his head, as if he is fighting his emotions. David has grown used to the buckskin exterior, the frontier hardness, and finds this unsettling. Billy pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Her name was Joyce. She was half-Japanese, half-Russian: dark, almond-shaped eyes with this tiny bit of Asian asymmetry that put me in some kind of… state. And thick, jet-black hair. We were engaged. Nobody knew. I’m glad of that. It was one thing that those fucking media vultures couldn’t tear away from me. I couldn’t even say goodbye to her, it was too risky.”
He looks up. His eyes are shining.
“This thing is toxic, David. Once it gets into the air, it’s like nuclear fallout. But I’ll tell you, I’m in love with another woman this time, and this time I’m not giving her up. And you’re in love with her, too, so I’m betting I can trust you. Besides, you’ve given me back my singing and my softball, so I guess I owe you the chance.”
Billy flips his cigarette to the asphalt. It lands with a burst of sparks.
“Am I right? Can I trust you?”
David extends a hand. Billy smiles and takes it.
“Good deal. Now, let’s see if our left fielder can make a goddamn pizza.”
“So the question is, if the homeless thing was a ruse, how come you were soaping yourself up in the harbor?”
Billy takes a sip of Pacifico Claro and grins. “Number one, it helps to explain why that homeless dude is cleaner than most. Number two, when people think you’re homeless, you can get away with all kinds of deviant behavior. And no one’s ever touched this place. I think they’re afraid of me.”
He picks out a ceramic bowl glazed with tropical flowers, and fills it with gumbo eternel.
“There were times, of course, when I actually was homeless. I recall a summer in Sheridan, Wyoming. There was an arts colony nearby, and they were really sweet to me. Even invited me to a barbecue. Sadly, one of them was a gay Jewish art critic from Memphis, and it didn’t take him long to figure me out. That’s how I ended up in Billings.”
David takes a spoonful of broth and lets it soak in. “Wow! Something sweet in there.”
“Cinnamon. Always a provocative choice. And a bit of persimmon.”
“A toasty autumn stew.”
He scoops deeper and comes up with persimmon, a bit of onion and a circular slice of meat. When he bites it, he discovers a spongey texture (a little like Portobello mushroom) and a tangy salt-water edge.
“Wow! What’s that?”
“I thought you’d enjoy that.”
“And thus dies a perfectly good metaphor.”
Billy gives a satisfied smile. “Not my intention, but you did arouse my curiosity.” He takes a spoonful for himself. “My. That is tasty. Much better when you slice it up. Not a big fan of dick stew.”
David performs a spit-take on his beer and wipes his mouth. “Now there’s a phrase you don’t hear every day.”
“‘Less you work in a gay bathhouse.”
David snorts and slaps the table. “You are an entirely funnier man than Billy Redman.”
“I gotta say, it does me good to have a couple people who know the terrible truth. When I’m not hiding from homicidal baseball fans, I can be a damn funny guy.”
David scans the harbor. The day is almost intolerably sunny, as if someone cranked up the brightness knob on a TV. In actuality, he is pre-assembling a rather risky question.
“Billy? Have you ever considered… coming out?”
If it’s possible, Billy’s eyes get bluer. David’s not sure what that means, but at least he’s got his attention.
“It’s been ten years. You’ve done the time. You had your life stolen from you. I think that people would like to have the chance to forgive you. Look at all the screw-up celebrities who return from rehab, and sex scandals – from prison, for God’s sake, and have terrific second careers.”
“But those people are… jokes.”
“Yes. And you are, too. You will always be that bastard who stole the pennant. You will always be defined by that one mistake, while the rest of us – especially myself – make four or five mistakes just like it, on the hour, and get away with it. That is the geoduck that life has thrown into your stew.”
“But I like geoduck.”
“Okay. Scratch the geoduck. Let’s go back to the joke. Right now, you are a sad joke. For all America knows, you’ve gone off somewhere and committed suicide, or you’re sitting in a log cabin in Saskatchewan composing manifestos on a Royal typewriter.”
“Man, you got some imagination. And specifically a Royal typewriter!”
“Had one when I was a kid. But listen, you’re the baseball Unabomber, you’re a sad, sad joke. Wouldn’t you rather be a funny joke? In a really demented sort of way, my friend, you have been touched by greatness. Embrace the joke. Own it! In fact, use the joke. Make your reappearance as the leader of the Billy Saddle Trio. No doubt, most people will come to hear you out of curiosity, the buzz of infamy – but I dare any one of them to deny your talent. I would be overjoyed to be part of…”
“All right already!” Billy’s laughing, holding up a hand. “Geez, buddy! You are into this. If I promise to think about it, will you knock it off for a while?"
“Sorry. But one other thing. Talk to Abbey. See what she thinks.”
“Oh, I get it,” says Billy. “You’re ganging up on me.”
“Haven’t even mentioned it to her. But great minds do think alike.”
“Said Hitler to Mussolini.”
“Oh yeah?” says David. “What do Billy Saddle and Michael Jackson have in common?”
Billy chuckles. “Okay. What?”
“They’re both liable to grab balls when you really wish they wouldn’t.”
Billy snickers and rubs his beard. “Wow. Me and Michael Jackson. That’s impressive.”
Championship night arrives crisp and clear at Nygaard Park. Run Like Hell opens up against the fourth seed and makes quick work of them, 15-6. The twilight game between the second and third seeds goes to the underdog North Beach Dukes, who come up with a four-run final inning to win 12-11.
It’s always a good debate as to who gets the advantage in the finals: the team that just played, all warmed up and filled with momentum, or the team that’s had an hour to rest.
One thing’s clear: Billy’s on fire. He leads off with a looper that lands near the right-field line and takes a crazy spin into foul territory. (David can’t help picturing Pasco’s fateful slash for the ’98 Blues.) The poor fielder keeps kicking the ball along the fence so Billy keeps going, arriving at third with a slide.
David comes to the plate with a new policy: in all situations, he will ask, What Would Billy Do? In this case, Billy would hit a grounder to the right, guaranteeing the RBI and – bonus time! – rolling it through for a single.
When Oscar hits a two-hopper to short, David goes as fast as his aging transmission will allow and puts on a hard slide, sending the second baseman flying into the air and preventing the double play. The fielder pats David on the back and says, “Good slide.” David jogs to the dugout, thinking, what a cool and rare thing to find an opponent who understands the game.
The Billy Show contines in the bottom of the inning, when the leadoff man strokes a grounder down the right-field line. Billy sprints to his left and goes into a feet-first slide. He gloves the ball, while he’s sliding, then pops up, spins and tosses a one-hopper to second. The runner stops in his tracks and goes back to first. David hears a shout from the dugout and sees that Derek has brought along his zoom-lens camera. (Apparently, he got the shot.) David feels a little guilty about Derek, but it’s the playoffs, and he needs to put his best team on the field.
In the fourth, David finds himself with a ripe situation: bases loaded, one out and Pablo at the plate. He calls time and meets him in the on-deck circle.
“You thinkin’ suicide squeeze?”
“Yeah, yeah. Chucklehead. You’ve done such a good job with this off-field stuff, they’re playing you shallow and to the right. You still got that useless baseball swing?”
“Let it rip. If you get to two strikes, just go wherever the pitch goes.”
The first pitch is a groove shot, and Pablo attacks, leveraging his hips, extending his arms and lofting a bomb to left. The ball lands three feet fair, and by the time the fielder digs it out of the bushes Pablo is loping home. David gives himself a few mental backslaps for being a genius fucking coach.
The grand slam is huge, but the Dukes are not going away easy. They’re scrappers, lacing liner after liner through the infield. Run Like Hell finds itself with a two-run lead in the top of the final inning and seems to think that’s enough, making three quick outs.
The Dukes start the bottom of the inning with two singles. David gets the next hitter to pop up, but their number-three man hits a grounder to deep short. Oscar lays out for a great stop, but is unable to make a play. Their cleanup man follows with a long fly to center, scoring one runner and moving up the other two. Two outs, tying run on third, winning run on second. The air is growing thin.
The next batter is a tall, wiry left-hander. With first base open, David tosses a couple of high ones, but he’s not biting. He brings the next one into the zone, and he hits it to right with a breathtaking smack!
It’s a liner, but it’s headed straight for Billy. David watches him square up behind it and thinks, This is it! This is the end of the curse.
But now Billy’s staggering, sinking to a knee, fighting some unseen force. The ball strikes the heel of his glove and falls to the grass.
David is ready to let fly with a few suitable obscenities, but he doesn’t have time. Billy has popped to his feet and fired the ball to first, and Lemke’s wandering in shallow right. David takes three steps and launches himself, catching the ball mid-flight and landing with his glove on the bag.
Beating the runner by a half-step.
The umpire steps in front of home plate.
“The runner is out at first! That is a force! Neither runner scores. Game!”
Run Like Hell goes silent for a full second, then bursts into hysterics. In the midst of his wrestling match with Big John Spillums, Billy had spotted the batter, standing in the box, watching his drive, certain that he had just made the last out of the season.
David dodges Lemke, performing an actual cartwheel across the infield, and dashes out to right, where Billy is kneeling on the grass, watching the celebration.
“Billy! We won! You all right?”
Billy smiles and struggles to his feet. “Give me a hug, coach.”
David wraps him up and lifts him into the air.
“No, no. A little higher. ‘Round the shoulders.”
He does as instructed and hears a popping sound.
“Yowch! Thanks. It does that when I throw too hard.”
David smiles and says, “It’s gone, isn’t it?”
“The curse! You beat the curse!”
Billy gives him a quizzical look. “I don’t believe in curses.”
“Well, what the hell got ahold of you on that line drive?”
He laughs – that special high-pitched laugh, echoing across the field.
“Bastard hit me a knuckleball. You ever try to catch one of those things?”
For a victory of such epic proportions, the standard pizza party will not suffice, so Run Like Hell extends its celebration to the jazz trio’s Labor Day performance. The official dress code is suit, tie and team T-shirt.
David indulges in a steak dinner with his family as Isaiah warms up the crowd. The importance of the occasion is punctuated by the presence of his wife, although her eyes keep wandering toward the door, like a wild creature in a cage.
Being underage, the boys will have to stay in the dining area, but their table affords an excellent backstage view. Derek has already made his contribution: a stack of statistical printouts, including individual player profiles, and a collage of photos on a posterboard display. The star attraction is a seven-shot sequence illustrating Billy’s already-legendary play. Noting the batter’s previous tendencies (a single and two flies, all to right), Derek trained his lens on Billy and kept his finger on the rapid-fire from setup to drop to desperation throw.
David has been scouring his brain, trying to come up with a nickname as catchy as the Grand Fool Double. The Bobble Rocket. The Cursebuster. The DroppenPop.
Pablo’s pointing stageward.
Isaiah’s wearing a cantankerous grin, playing the Washington Post March. David ditches his dessert and reports for work. As he and Billy take their spots, the team begins to chant.
“Run Like Hell! Run Like Hell! Run Like Hell!”
Billy turns on his mic. “All right, you savages. Settle down. For those innocent visitors among us, Run Like Hell is the name of a softball team that recently won the Ocean Shores championship.”
The team roars.
“We’ll get the rest of you some dance music, but first we will attempt to appease this passel of raging jocks by playing a ditty commonly associated with the sport. A one-two-three one-two-three…”
The trio has worked this out ahead of time. Stealing a Gene Kelly Muppet Show gag involving “Singin’ in the Rain,” Isaiah cranks up a chunky three-time and Billy teases the crowd with every other waltz in the book: “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “In the Good Ol’ Summertime”…
“Oh, that’s not it? How about this one…”
“Molly Malone,” the secretly apropos “Tennessee Waltz,” even Verdi’s “La donna è mobilé.”
“Oh! Okay. This one for sure.”
And, finally, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The team gives it three hearty sing-alongs, Billy cuts them off, and Oscar yells “Play ball!”
David is suffering equal parts anxiety and guilt about just how much he’s getting away with. Elena gives him a wave at ten and heads home – or perhaps to the 24-hour gym that seems to have no effect on her physical condition. Derek and Pablo disappear to the pizza parlor (where, let’s face it, Pablo can have all the beer he wants). Most of the team heads off by midnight, most of the tourists by one, and soon they’re on to their final song, “Funny Valentine.” David abandons his post and heads for Abbey’s booth, where she’s chatting with a remarkable-looking woman: delicate librarian features, porcelain skin and a head of surprisingly kinky black hair.
“Excuse me,” he says. “May I steal your friend for a dance?”
The woman smiles – even her teeth are small, like a doll’s – and says, “By all means.”
Most of the dancing dilemma was solved by Abbey’s natural grace. David takes his left hand and drops it to her waist, and uses his right hand for spins. This cuts down on his options, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Abbey is dressed for the occasion, a frilly purple gown that is just about as close as Ocean Shores will ever come to Hollywood. He plants a kiss on the side of her neck.
“So. Who’s the gal-pal?”
“You know her?”
“I send her checks.”
“She does great work.”
Abbey bats her eyes. David wasn’t aware that she could do that. But he likes it tremendously.
“You might find it interesting to note that my uncle is getting entirely too much credit for that play. I mean, excuse me but weren’t you the one who hurled himself halfway across the diamond to make the putout?”
David is near to laughing but just smiles instead. “You enjoyed that?”
She bats her eyes again, setting off a hazel spark in her irises. “It was thrilling. I wanted to drag you into the bushes and screw your brains out.”
David’s knees buckle, as if Greg Maddux has just dropped a curveball over the inside corner.
“But then,” says Abbey, “I often want to do that.”
David feels his face growing hot. “I’m sorry. What was the question?”
“Credit! You deserve equal credit.”
“Well, honey. It’s like Lewis and Clark.”
“Oh my god! You are not going to drag Lewis and Clark into a softball game.”
“I am. On the journey itself, they were absolute equals. But Lewis gets more historical credit because it was his vision - his remarkable store of knowledge, his friendship with Jefferson - that made the whole thing possible. Somewhere deep in his muscle memory, Billy saw the possibility of that play and set it into motion. I get credit for reacting, for a pretty fucking awesome display of self-sacrifice, but the vision, that was Billy’s.”
Billy rounds out the song, but Isaiah continues into another solo.
“Another example. It was my vision that the band would continue this song. Reading my thoughts and seeing me dancing with a gorgeous hunk of woman, my pianist has just brilliantly brought this idea to life.”
Abbey looks at her uncle, eyes closed as he stirs the snare.
“I’ve never seen him so alive. I call it the Lazarus Play.”
“He was dead. The team was dead. One throw, one catch. No longer dead.”
“So your uncle is the messiah.”
“You got a problem with that?”
David laughs and lowers Abbey into a dip.
It’s the first day of school. The sun is out and eager, throwing straws of yellow light across the kitchen table. David ventures a first sip of coffee. His brain is painfully overamped: first-day speeches, syllabi, schedules, reading assignments. He reminds himself that he’s dealing with zombies, their brain cells sucked dry by summer. It doesn’t do any good to rush things.
So why not read the paper?
He ventures down the walk. That same gray cat next to the hedge, ready to flee at the slightest aggression. What is it about cats? So neurotic. He picks up the Aberdeen Daily World, wrapped in a plastic sleeve, and carries it inside. Something ticks forward in his head, a familiar face, bearded. He returns to the table, slides the paper from its sleeve and discovers Billy, wearing a look of anxious concentration, eyes narrowed, forehead wrinkled. It’s the region above the masthead, home of teasers for the inside sections.
Baseball Recluse Spotted in Ocean Shores – Billy Saddle, villain of ’98 playoffs. Sports 1D.
David pulls out the sports section and finds a triptych from Derek’s sequence: Billy peering at the oncoming drive; on a knee, the ball dropping from his glove; back on his feet, rearing back for the throw to first. The photo credit is Derek Falter, Special to the Daily World. Set into the text of the story is a mug shot of Billy from the ’98 playoffs.
Blues Scapegoat Sighted in Ocean Shores
By Jerry Sturgess, Sports Editor
Billy Saddle, the Memphis Blues fan who notoriously interfered with a fair ball in the ’98 National League playoffs, was spotted recently in Ocean Shores, playing for a men’s softball squad.
The incident, known as the Grand Fool Double, and widely attributed to a team curse, drove Saddle to become a fugitive. The only other Saddle sighting came in 2003 near Sheridan, Wyoming.
His presence in Ocean Shores came to light thanks to a remarkable play that locals are calling The Assist from the Mist. After dropping a line drive in right field, Saddle threw to first for a force out that iced the championship. Photographs of the feat, taken by the coach’s son, 16-year-old Derek Falter, were displayed at a team party, where they were spotted by a Blues fan visiting from Centralia.
Falter, a student at North Beach High School, described Saddle as an ideal teammate.
“He’s not a gung-ho, cheerleader type,” said Falter. “But all you have to do is watch the way he plays. He really knows and loves the game, and his hustle is infectious. That play in the championship speaks for itself.”
Falter described Saddle’s existence as “somewhat homeless,” although he has apparently received some assistance from a North Beach English teacher. He has also performed in a local hotel as a jazz singer and drummer – the same occupation he held in ’98, before media attention and death threats drove him from his hometown.
Efforts to contact Saddle or his teacher-patron have been unsuccessful.
David is thankful that he is fully dressed, because he needs to leave, right now. His overwhelming desire is to throttle his son, but he also hears the small, wise voice at the back of his head saying, “Do not act on this.”
Also, he has a ritual to perform. On his first day at North Beach, 20 years before when the ink had barely dried on his teaching credential and he had no wordly idea what he was going to tell his students, David stopped at Steve’s Doughnuts for a coffee and a pair of glazed old-fashioneds. The combination seemed to give him the necessary charge, so – like a pitcher who refuses to change his cap during a winning streak – he has gone there every first day since.
He adjourns to a window booth with a cinnamon roll and a bear claw. A half-cup later, he has assembled all the logical conclusions. Derek puts the photos up at the party. Mr. X, wandering Blues fan from Centralia, sees the photos, sees the singer, recalls Billy Saddle’s occupation and, driven by the thrill of the hunt, peripheral celebrity or twelve-year-old anger, calls up the nearest daily.
Jerry Sturgess, hearing Mr. X’s tale, understands that he might have something national – the kind of story where writers from Memphis, Washington and New York will be calling him. Failing to get Mr. X to let him use his name, he builds a checklist. He needs confirmation, he needs a quote – though he doubts it will be from Saddle himself – and most of all he needs those photos. He Googles “Run Like Hell Ocean Shores” and discovers the team Facebook page. And now he’s drooling, because the photos are good. He pulls up a Saddle shot from ’98, does a little compare-and-contrast, and removes all doubt. It’s him.
Sturgess contacts Derek through the page, says he’s doing a story on Billy’s remarkable play, and mostly he wants to use these wonderful photos. He gets a few quotes about Billy, making sure to reveal nothing about his real identity. The photos cost him a mere fifty bucks. He sends Derek to the paper’s website, where he can fill out an online permissions form. “Just a legal thing,” he says. And is much relieved when, ten minutes later, a copy arrives in his email. He has landed the fish.
David assumes it’s Derek who came up with The Assist from the Mist. It screams Poet Who Loves Baseball. It’s also freakin’ beautiful. It reminds him of the name that Indians fans gave to their old stadium, The Mistake on the Lake.
David spends the rest of his coffee-time stewing. He assumes that Derek didn’t tell anybody because he was going for the big surprise. Now, Derek will be surprised. And so will Billy, who will undoubtedly shift into Flying Dutchman mode and disappear by noon. Odds are that Abbey’s heart will be broken.
Riding heavy doses of sugar and caffeine, David is feeling greedy. He’s the fucking coach. What does David Falter get out of this? He consumes the final toe of his bearclaw and heads for the newspaper box, where he inserts two quarters and removes the entire stack. He refuses to suffer any more guilt, so he takes out a twenty, wraps it in a strip of newspaper and stows it in the back of the box.
With attendance taken, late adds signed and matters of class decorum elucidated, David assumes the classic teaching posture, seating himself on the top of his desk, legs dangling.
“The more observant among you may have noticed that the teacher brought a stack of newspapers to class.”
This elicits a patch of titters – a good start. The newbies are still feeling him out. Eventually, he wants them to know that humor and American history are not mutually exclusive.
“No, we have not had budget cuts. No, I have not taken a paper route.”
The titters grow into sprouts.
“Any former paper-carriers here today?”
A dark-complexioned boy raises a nervous hand. David checks his seating chart.
“Okay, um, Erik. Help me out with this.”
David splits the stack. He and Erik make the rounds. The poor little tikes are so nervous, they won’t even open the papers. Or perhaps, the way technology is advancing, they no longer have no idea what these alien objects are for.
“Let me start by saying that nothing I say today will be on a test. However, if you listen carefully, I will hand you the keys to making this class much more interesting. At eight-thirty in the morning, interesting is a very desirable quality.”
They’re working up to snickers. Good. David stands and slaps a paper against his hand.
“This thing we call ‘history’ is, quite literally, yesterday’s news. History is being produced every day. The Aberdeen Daily World, the Internet, TV, YouTube, Twitter, text messages. That’s right, you are producing history. Now. Please flip through to the sports section and look for the man with the long-ass beard.”
More snickers. Teenagers respect the occasional low-level swear word.
“Now. Without reading the article, does anyone know who Billy Saddle is?”
A big blond kid in a letter jacket says, “He screwed up the playoffs like ten years ago.”
“Precisely. What position do you play, um, Marcus?”
“Ah. The smart ones play catcher. I’m a pitcher. And I spent the summer playing softball with this man, Billy Saddle, without knowing that he was a genuine historical figure. I only discovered his true identity a couple weeks ago. I told him I would reveal it to no one. Even after twelve years, a lot of Memphis fans would like to beat Mr. Saddle to a pulp.”
David is making this lecture up on the spot; unsure of his next segue, he opts for a stall.
“Tell you what. It’s a short article. Go ahead and give it a read.”
He turns away to focus his thoughts. An observer might think he’s praying to the chalkboard. He watches the clock until the second hand arrives at 12.
“Okay! Let me give you my central point. A large portion of what we call ‘history’ is, in fact, plain old dumb luck. Let’s look at the pivotal sin of Mr. Saddle, which was to interfere with a ball that likely would have returned to the field of play and, by so doing, scored a run that might well have guaranteed the Blues the pennant.
“Consider the forces of chance lined up against poor Mr. Saddle. In a stadium of 45,000 fans, only he was in a position to catch that ball. He was only in that position because some 1920s stadium architect drank too much gin one night and decided that a single set of bleachers should poke out into the field like Barbra Streisand’s nose. The historical magnitude of Mr. Saddle’s play was amplified by the much-exaggerated curse of a scorned blues musician named Big John Spillums, and several similarly heartbreaking plays, scattered over several decades of baseball, that fit neatly into the legend.
“So there’s the setup. Now let’s follow the path of the baseball. Coming off the bat of Pasco Fernandez, this magical spheroid dodged the first baseman’s glove by inches, landed inside the foul line by another couple of inches, spun crazily to the right, struck the bullpen mound and launched itself, Evel Knievel-like, into the air, spelling out an arc that would have just cleared those protruding bleachers. Let’s throw in one more coincidence: only a spectator of Mr. Saddle’s height and skill could have plucked that ball from its path, much less caught it bare-handed.”
David paces toward the window and takes a moment to look out at the front field, where Coach Hazlett is handing out P.E. uniforms to a class of freshmen. He taps the window and turns back.
“This is a sad story. A veritable DNA strand of random events that have conspired to ruin a man’s life. And lest you think I was kidding about one of you contributing to history, please note the unwitting catalyst of this latest chapter: my son, Derek, who goes to this school.
“But coincidence can also be happy. Twice during the year 1776 – the taking of Dorchester Hill that forced the British from Boston, and the Christmas Day attack on the Hessian troops at Trenton – known by most of you from the painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ – the weather turned suddenly terrible, providing a perfect camouflage for the American troops. Had this not so magically occurred, both efforts might well have failed, and this flag behind me would be a Union Jack.
“Another of my favorite subjects: Lewis and Clark, who arrived at the Pacific Ocean some fifty miles south of this classroom. They spent the first winter of their journey with the Mandan tribe of present-day North Dakota, preparing to enter the territories of unfamiliar and possibly hostile native tribes. They planned to ingratiate themselves with these tribes by offering gifts of military medals, uniforms and American flags, when what the natives really wanted was tobacco, guns and whiskey. Sort of like Hoquiam on a Saturday night.”
Actual laughter. He’s on a roll.
“That winter, Lewis and Clark recruited a French fur trapper named Charbonneau. This man had a teenage wife with an intriguing background. As a child, she was abducted from her native tribe, the Shoshone, by the Hidatsa tribe. Charbonneau then won her, along with another Shoshone girl, on a bet with the warriors who had captured them! She gave birth that February, and had to carry her infant son with her on the journey. And I will fail you all unless someone tells me her name in the next five seconds.”
A brunette in the third row blurts out “Sacagawea!”
David smiles. “Good! Thanks to that high-school-age girl, Lewis and Clark had a translator, and a guide who would be leading them into the lands of her childhood. What’s more, in a situation in which a sizeable squadron of white men could easily be taken as an invading force – and dealt with accordingly – the sight of a young native woman with a papoose served as an immediate signal of the excursion’s peaceful intentions.
“But it didn’t stop there. When they arrived at Sacagawea’s childhood village, they discovered that, in the intervening years, the title of tribal chief – a position won not through lineage but warrior deeds – had fallen to Cameahwait, Sacagawea’s brother. The Corps of Discovery was immediately embraced by the tribe and guided through the treacherous Rocky and Bitteroot mountains by one of its scouts, Old Toby.
“If not for Sacagawea, this flag behind me might well be a Union Jack, a hammer and sickle, or, God forbid, a maple leaf.”
More laughter. He’s killing. David perches on his desk and folds his fingers.
“I will be testing you on dates, and names, and themes and movements. But I want you to enjoy these little marvels of chance as much as I do. and, If you should work them into your papers, the teacher will look kindly upon you. As for today, I have no further lecture material, but I’d like you to use the remaining time to get started on our first reading assignment, Chapter One of the Graham textbook.”
David asks them to leave the newspapers on their desks, and he uses the same speech for the rest of the day, making small improvements as he goes. Towards the end, however, he begins to feel a little worn down by the central truth: that his friend will continue to suffer at the hands of history.
At the end of his final class, he dismisses everyone early and heads for Point Damon. Even after ditching his tie he is vastly overdressed, like a lawyer out beachcombing on his lunch hour. The walk is painfully slow, the chance of seeing Billy diminishing with each step, but the sky offers an armada of small, puffy clouds coasting in from the Pacific. He passes a young mother, hiking with two small children, and gives them a nod.
David envisions the driftwood teepee, leveled or burned to cinders, but discovers it untouched. The interior, too, is unchanged: the low table, the log bench, the dangling pot. He takes a seat, hoping to read the room: occupied abode, or abandoned hovel? He’s about to give up and head back to his car when he finds two words scrawled on the table in black marker: David Pot. His brain conjures some little-known cousin to Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, but soon the words take their intended form. David looks in the pot to find a manila envelope. The cover offers a note:
Hi Coach –
I guess you’ve figured out that the Aberdeen exposé has sent me packing and quick. Sorry I couldn’t stick around for a goodbye, but that party was a pretty good sendoff. A wise performer leaves the stage while he’s still hot.
This has been my best summer since the Enormous Idiot Two-Baser. I have had a blast, and I only hope I’m not leaving the trio in the lurch. Don’t be too hard on Derek. He knew not what he dood, and besides, I look awesome in those photos!
Take care, David. You’re a great friend.
- Billy Saddle
PS Inside, another matter entirely.
David opens the envelope and finds two items, two sheets of notebook paper and a CD in a cardboard sleeve.
A few weeks ago, I borrowed Abbey’s truck and drove into Aberdeen for some errands. I had just parked at the big mall when I saw Elena with a middle-aged man – balding in the horseshoe style, paunchy but not fat, perhaps five-foot-eight, long torso, short legs, not unattractive. They were walking hand-in-hand, which of course I found somewhat alarming. They entered a restaurant with large windows. I came as close as I could and watched as they ordered a meal that seemed to go on and on, one dish after another. They sat side-by-side, and as they ate they exchanged kisses, and caresses, in the manner of new lovers. Every so often they would pick up morsels of food with their fingers and feed each other.
It occurred to me that this would explain Elena’s recent behavior: her relative absence, her inability to lose weight. I’ve got this guy pegged as a “chubby chaser.” Faced with the hard work of dieting, and a man who evidently loves her exactly as she is, it could be that she has taken the easiest option.
Knowing I could not deliver this kind of news to you without some sort of hard evidence, I borrowed Abbey’s video camera and followed Elena on a subsequent trip. She drove to the same shopping mall, where she met the same man. They went into an ice cream parlor, and I managed to capture a few minutes of them eating and, as the tabloids say, “canoodling.” I copied it onto the enclosed DVD, which you should be able to play on a computer.
I wanted to tell you about this earlier, but I saw no reason to ruin the playoffs for you. I hope this revelation does not cause you too much pain, or disrupt your household. I do hope it eases your feelings of guilt about Elena’s weight. I would also be very glad if it allows you more freedom in sharing your affections with Abbey. I adore that girl, and the hope that you will be looking after her will give me some comfort as I flee the scene.
Whatever you do, don’t act too quickly on any of this. Give the geoduck a chance before you go throwing out the gumbo.
Your devoted friend –
David takes the DVD from its sleeve and watches the rainbow refractions on its surface. He notices that Billy has twice signed his full name. He probably doesn’t get too many chances to do that.
The next item on David’s agenda (almost too ironic to mention) is the ice cream shop. He is grateful when they are swamped by the North Beach football team, fresh from a grueling practice. It also gives him the chance to talk with some of his students in a casual setting. One of his favorites is the quarterback, George Baraksin, who puts the lie to the dumb-jock stereotype. George stays at the counter for a while, licking a cone of Rocky Road as Pablo handles the next customer.
“That speech you gave today was rockin’. You should write that up and send it to a magazine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to tell people how much of a football game is sheer stupid luck.”
“Thanks. That speech was a bit of luck, too. I was sort of making it up as I went along.”
“Wow! Wish I could do that.”
“Don’t you call audibles?”
George smiles. He’s got enormous teeth, dark Mediterranean features. Ought to be a model.
“I’d rather face a blitz than a room full of bored students. So that friend of yours. Did he split town?”
“I think so.”
“Bummer. I woulda liked to meet him. I totally understand how nasty sports fans can be.”
George salutes him with his cone and heads for a table occupied by a large, luscious redhead. She’s a big-boned gal for a quarterback, but she sure looks like fun.
He’s a cuckold. Horns on his head. Mr. Chubby Chaser covering her in ice cream and licking it off. He envisions the way she looked sideways at him in Spanish class, round dark eyes under bangs of black hair.
Fucking ice cream. Pablo may have saved them, but even his paltry minimum wage threw off the books. Their sum profit for August – August! – was two hundred dollars. With school starting, it’s clear that the place is nothing but a leech, sucking away their time and money.
“Hey Dad. Sorry about the Billy thing. Damn! This whole time, I’m playing next to a legend and I don’t even know it.”
“Sorry ‘bout that. I was sworn to secrecy.”
“Yeah. Well, uh, the other thing…”
Uh-oh. Pablo’s stuttering. Pablo never stutters.
“Um… Mr. Laney is retiring, and he wants me to manage the pizza parlor.”
“Pablo! That’s great. When do you start?”
“Um… Next Monday okay?”
“Will the shop be okay?”
David puts a hand on Pablo’s shoulder and lowers his voice. “Son, fuck the shop.”
This brings forth the big goofy grin, the one that Pablo first produced at the age of four.
“Dad! An F-bomb. Impressive!”
“A wise teacher learns from his students.”
“Just don’t make it a habit. You might start creepin’ me out.”
A couple hours later, David is beginning the final mop when somebody raps on the front door.
“Closed!” calls David. He looks up to see that it’s Derek, and heads over to undo the lock.
“Dad, I am so…”
“Now, now. Before you go into your opening argument, counselor, we’ve already figured out that it wasn’t your fault. It’s not like I banned you from taking photos at the games.”
Derek looks relieved, but then his face tightens up again. “No. I’m sorry anyway. I’m sorry it happened, I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out what that reporter was really getting at. How come he didn’t tell me about Billy? Isn’t there some law about full disclosure?”
David goes back to his mopping. “You’re mistaking jurisprudence for journalism. He’s not looking for evidence – just facts.”
“Oh. Well, now I know. So… is Billy gone?”
“Yes. But he left a note. In fact, he wanted to thank you for those photos. Sort of allowed him to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Derek laughs nervously. “That’s pretty cool. Um… well…”
Will there be no end of stuttering sons?
“Spit it out, Derek!”
“It’s the Associated Press. They want the photos.”
David leans on his mop handle. “Well holy shit.”
Pablo, wiping the counter, takes a theatrical pause. “Dad! What have I told you about language?”
David ignores him. “How much?”
“A thousand bucks.”
David stops to consider the ethical ramifications, but he can’t see for all the dollar signs.
“Well… hell. I guess if Billy likes those pictures so much, you may as well share them with the world.”
He expects Derek to be happy about this, but finds him staring at the floor.
“I’m a graverobber. I’m a war profiteer.”
“Oh Jesus, son. Could you occasionally just be shallow and superficial like the rest of us? Billy liked you a lot. When you consider all the primo a-holes who have profited from his misfortune, I imagine he’ll see this as a bit of payback. Now get the hell out of my shop so I can close.”
He plants the mop in its squeezer, but finds that Derek hasn’t moved.
“Is there more?”
Derek runs a hand through his Mexican hair.
“Um, yeah. I called the sports editor to complain about the story, and… he hired me.”
David feels the urge to make like a cartoon character and shake his head around like a baby rattle.
“He wants me to take photos for the high school football season.”
David grins. “If we ever see Billy again, you are so buying him a steak dinner.”
Derek laughs. “No problemo.”
“Now,” says David. “Are we done?”
“No. The guy from the AP wants to talk to you.”
David wraps his arms around the mop handle and sighs. “You ever have one of those days?”
Derek chuckles. “Yeah.”
“You got the phone number?”
“Okay. I probably need to check with Billy’s niece. You might know her, by the way. She’s your poetry teacher.”
Pablo, emptying a wastebasket, takes a theatrical pause. “Derek! Language!”
“See you, Dad.”
“Good night, ambulance chaser.”
Derek heads out across the parking lot. David notes a decided lift in his step.
He arrives to find a dot of orange light hovering on the porch. Abbey’s on the swing, smoking. David sits next to her and wraps her up. She’s been crying. He waits a while before speaking.
She takes a puff and lets it go. “Yep.”
“Fucking baseball fans.”
“My feelings exactly.”
A car drives past on Chance La Mer, pushing a triangle of light into the damp air.
“Any other news?”
“Pablo’s going back to manage the pizza parlor. I’m closing down the ice cream shop. The Daily World hired Derek as a photographer. The Associated Press is paying him three thousand dollars for those photos of Billy…”
Abbey straightens up, her eyes getting wider.
“…and the AP also wants to interview me. What do you think?”
Abbey rubs a finger and thumb along her forehead, trying to work this massive info-dump through her brain.
“Good! Good for Derek. And yes, talk to them. Tell them everything. Let those motherfuckers know what they’ve done to a perfectly wonderful…” She loses her sentence to tears. “Oh God, David. I’m going to miss him.”
David holds her tighter, then takes her cigarette and gives it a puff. It doesn’t take her long to recover, so he continues with his list.
“My wife is cheating on me.”
Abbey looks up and wipes her eyes.
“You remember Billy borrowing your video camera?”
“Yeah. He was going to film Derek’s swing.”
“And follow Elena to a rendezvous.”
“With a chubby chaser.”
Abbey lets out a burst of laughter and immediately covers her mouth. David laughs, too.
“Yeah. The whale is cheating on the butterfly. Billy wanted to make sure I had some evidence. It was very thoughtful… in a demented sort of way. Abbey? Do you love me?”
Abbey gives him a long, tender kiss.
“Yes, you moron.”
“Well. Tell you what. Give me a couple weeks to reassemble my brain, and I will probably love you, too.”
“Screw that. I want sex.”
David laughs, and feels the long, improbable day escaping through the ends of his hair.
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
The Friday night gig presents an agony of absence. A fierce storm has declared war on the oceanfront, pelting the windows. Deprived of his clove cigarette, David sits inside over a plate of fries and an orange soda. Abbey’s having a girls’ night out with Señora Vitanza and Fyona Medvedev, a science instructor. It’s better this way; seeing the trio minus her uncle would be a big dirty bag of downer.
The only possible upside is the chance to rediscover the musical force that is Isaiah. He’s playing “Caravan” in free time, copping out of the regular meter to take artful digressions, like side paths at the oasis. One of these trails keeps going until it turns into Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. David leaves his cheap plastic food to take up the bass.
Isaiah surveys the room, seven scattered refugees from the Ocean Shores weatherwheel of chance. He opens his fake book to “Stormy Weather.” David’s right with him, a diminished duet on a session of voiceless mourning.
“You’re kidding, right?”
They’re wading across the parking lot, over an inch-deep sheet of water maintained by the velocity of the downpour.
“We’re gonna sit in your truck and drink? That is so pathetique.”
“Oh hush,” says Isaiah. “And behold!”
It’s a camper, settled over the truck bed like a shell on a snail. He opens the back door, flips on the lights and waves David inside. The interior is done up like a British pub: red velvet curtains, red vinyl upholstery, black walls, a fold-up table of fake walnut. Along the right-hand side stands a five-foot slice of an actual bar: varnished cherry wood, a brass steprail. Isaiah slips behind it, whips out a pair of tumblers and fills them with ice. He reaches underneath and conjures bourbon, vermouth and a jar of cherries.
“By all means! Where’d you get the bar?”
“You remember Fishman’s? Up in Moclips?”
“They went out of business, sold everything. They had an L-shaped bar; this was the tail.”
David rattles the ice in his glass and takes a sip.
“I may just stay out here all night.”
“Yeah,” says Isaiah. “We, my friend, have been swimming in the deep end of the talent pool.”
“And the lifeguard just left.”
Isaiah puzzles his long frame behind the bench.
“I’m assuming we should just wait till next summer to find a new singer.”
“Unless Nina Simone walks in.”
“Two problems: she’s dead, and when she’s not dead, she plays piano. So no word on Billy?”
“The man is committed. When he vamooses, he vamooses.”
Isaiah opens a cigar box next to the window, revealing an ashtray, a lighter and a pack of clove cigarettes.
“You are the man.”
“Yes I am. Now give me the lowdown on these kids of yours.”
David lights and puffs. The feel of smoking indoors – even in a camper – is tremendously illicit.
“Alas, poor Derek is off at Hoquiam High, paying for his newfound fame by shooting photos in a monsoon.”
Isaiah grins. “Imagine the babeage you could pull with that job.”
“Well, anybody else, yes.”
“Yeah, but at least it’ll give him an opening. Girls love having their picture taken. Better give him the condom talk.”
“Hey, give me a little credit. Told him when he was twelve.”
“How ‘bout Pablo?”
“And how is The Natural?”
“Born manager. He is really in his element. He also has some top-secret project he’s going to show me. Soon as the deluge passes.”
“And the wife?”
“Man! You are thorough.” He steals a moment by taking a drag. “Okay. I am drafting you as my confessor. Will you afford me doctor-patient confidentiality?”
Isaiah raises his right hand. “I do solemnly swear, et cetera.”
“The wife is wholly content. But, with someone else. A chubby chaser. On the upside, I am now free to boink Abbey Sparling at will.”
Isaiah lets out a roar of laughter. “I really hate to say this, because it sounds so Machiavellian, but you have found a perfect situation.”
“Yes. Veddy European. Sophisticated. Unspoken agreements.”
David gets a little lost in visions, pieces of Abbey floating past in the too-closeness of embrace.
“It is so good. I never dreamed. We already had that comfort level, because we’re friends. But we’ve also had this constant flirtation – so that’s the water in the reservoir and let’s call my mistaken devotion to fidelity the concrete dam. Suddenly Chubby Chaser comes along, cranks open the floodgates. Ho-lee shit. The energy of all that release is just overpowering.”
David brings his gaze back into the camper and finds Isaiah with his eyes to the ceiling, looking a little stoned.
“Ah yes,” says the big man. “I know exactly that feeling.”
“You, um, do?”
He gives David a shit-eating grin.
“You dog! You’re screwing ths shrink?”
“We prefer to eschew such vulgar terminology. We’re veddy European. Another Manhattan?”
“Encore! My God, we have virtually wallpapered your camper with filthy gossip.”
“Yes.” Isaiah tosses three cubes into each tumbler. “And now it is truly a home.”
Two weeks later, the orbits of Pablo’s schedule, David’s schedule and the fickle autumn weather finally achieve convergence. They stop by Steven’s Doughnuts and sit at a back booth to savor their fritters and maple bars. David gets the odd feeling that his son is courting him, like a college coach with a promising prospect. If he’s not careful, he might end up flipping pizzas.
“So get me up-to-date on the Billy thing. Did he leave a note?”
“Yep. The expected stuff: had a great summer, hate to leave, et cetera.”
“Ah. So how’d the AP interview go?”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
“Well, it reminded me of something. We’re all a little overexposed to the sleazy tabloid reporters of the world, but really most of the mainstream press is peopled by folks who want to get it right. The AP guy, Kevin something – very low-key, very serious. Asked me for confirmation on Billy’s identity, I referred him to Abbey. Asked me about Billy’s mental state, what kind of guy he was, any idea where he went. And ya know? The story pretty much got it right.”
“Hmm.” Pablo sips from his orange juice. “Any idea on distribution?”
What would you say is your biggest weakness?
“Most of the big dailies carried it. Maybe twenty used your brother’s photo, which excited him no end.”
Pablo rolls his cartoon eyes. “Don’t I know it.”
“But you know, all in all it was less of a circus than I expected. Couple of follow-up calls – Seattle, Memphis, Washington Post. Sports Illustrated asked for an interview with Billy if he ever reappears. The way Billy talked about it, you expected the National Guard to roll in. It just wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“You think he’ll ever come back?”
David suppresses a sigh. He’s hoping this isn’t the topic of the day.
“Doubt it. Not based on Billy’s track record. It’s almost like he’s got post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone finds out his name and bam! He’s gone.”
Pablo raises a finger. “It’s like that fairy tale. That creepy little guy.”
“All right,” says David. “Enough of this. What’s the big mystery?”
“Can’t tell you a thing. First you must see.”
“What’re you, Yoda?”
A short drive later, they pull up at the abandoned lot next to McKenzie’s Bar. The place is so non-descript that it has never really scratched the surface of David’s radar. From the street it’s nothing but a high stretch of fencing, covered in ivy, topped with razor wire. Pablo heads for the gate and undoes the padlock. The lot is enormous, and populated by goats, chewing upon a series of grass-covered mounds. Front and center stands a large white tent, a little beaten up by the recent storms. Pablo walks that way while delivering a prologue.
“Laney’s big into real estate, and he kept an eye on this place for a long time. As soon as it fell into county possession, he bought it at auction. He really didn’t know what he was going to do with it – maybe open a bigger restaurant if the demand was right – so for years it just sat here. He never assumed there was anything back here; it was totally overgrown with brambles. But one day he noticed one of these mounds. Well here, check this out.”
Pablo goes to a mound to the right of the tent and shoos away a goat.
“Got these guys from a goat-rental company. We’re using them to get rid of the undergrowth.”
He crouches at the base of the mound and pulls up a fistful of grass. The soil beneath is hard-baked, almost ceramic.
“Kinda looks like stucco, right? So Laney took a sledge hammer, gave it a good whack and punched a hole in it. Then he reached in and pulled out a handful of sand. Like, beach sand. Naturally, he had to find out if there was something under the sand – and for that, we proceed to the big white tent.”
He unzips the flap and takes him inside, then hits the button on a battery-powered lantern. Most of the interior is taken up by a blue tarp, staked down over something with decidedly non-organic edges.
“What he discovered,” says Pablo, “is that someone had gone to great lengths to preserve what is under that tarp. A whole lot of sand, under a cap of adobe. The beauty of adobe – a mix of mud and clay – is that stuff will grow in it, which makes for great camouflage. And now for our presentation.”
David is impressed at Pablo’s showmanship – the way he has built up suspense over what lies under the tarp, carefully avoiding any hints about its identity. There’s definitely a good streak of blarney in the family tree.
He unclips the corners of the tarp and pulls it back to reveal a remarkable assemblage in gray cement. The top ridge is lined with towers and battlements, leading downhill through a zig-zag of terraces and low walls. Pablo smiles, watching his dad’s face as he puzzles it out.
“Imagine you are looking at a black-and-white photograph.”
“My God,” says David. “It’s Macchu Picchu.”
“Give the man a cigar!”
“But… what’s it doing here?”
“Hold on,” says Pablo. He steps to a spot behind the center tower and pulls something from his pocket. A white ball rolls through the tower gate, strikes the first low wall and runs to the right. At the end it drops to another wall, and runs to the left. Finally, it reaches an opening and tumbles to the dirt at David’s feet. He picks it up. The ball says Titleist.
“How many mounds would you guess are contained in this lot?”
“I’m guessing eighteen.”
“Donny, show him what he’s won! And if the rest are anything like this one, you are looking at Ocean Shores’ newest tourist attraction. My assignment, in my meager spare time, is to uncover them all and see what we can do for greens.”
“Wow! So what’s the other side look like?”
Pablo slides the tarp all the way off, revealing a ramp leading to three slots. The center slot funnels the ball into the tower; the right and left slots lead to sink-like depressions with holes at the bottom.
“Check inside there: galvanized pipes. These lead to exit holes at the bottom of Macchu Picchu, providing much-less-generous angles to the green. And check out the lettering.”
The walls on either side of the tower feature raised block letters: MACCHU PICCHU.
“God, Pablo. It’s like you’ve discovered the Ark of the Covenant. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Do you have any idea who did this?”
“Aha! That’s where you come in. As Indiana Jones is not available, Laney and I were wondering if you might look into this. I can offer you nothing but free pizza, and your eldest son’s undying devotion.”
It’s a moot question, of course. David was hooked at first sight; he has to know the story behind this thing. He rubs his chin as if he’s thinking of saying no.
“And a lifetime pass for miniature golf?”
“You got a deal.”
Number Two: Golden Gate Bridge
Roadway and railings of concrete, two towers of steel, pieces welded precisely together. Rings at the ends of the railings and tops of towers for suspending cables. The object is to traverse the bridge by striking the ball down the center, avoiding foot-wide gaps to the left and right. A smaller mound nearby was found to contain a scale model of Alcatraz Island. Both island and bridge are marked with raised concrete block lettering.
After an appointment with the one-armed temptress, David is wired, so he goes to the kitchen for a glass of wine. He is joined by Elena, who wanders into the kitchen in her bathrobe. She smiles.
“Yep. You want some?”
He pulls out a glass and fills it up.
“The red stuff always does the trick for me. Something about the tannic acid.”
She takes a taste and smacks her lips. “Mmm… toasty. School going okay?”
“Yes. I have achieved cruising altitude. It’s all pretty easy and smooth, and yet the subject matter still holds my interest. In another ten years, I will be jaded, bitter and ready to retire.”
Elena lets out a laugh that’s like an L-shaped birdsong. Ha-haaah.
“You’re a funny man, Mr. Falter.”
“That’s what my students say.”
Silence. David’s a little afraid of silence these days. A marriage has a way of leaking truth, and the balance of their symbiotic adulteries will tumble at the least exposure.
“I’m sorry about the ice cream parlor.”
“Ah, it was time.”
“Yes, but it was my idea in the first place.”
“Good ideas don’t always turn into good businesses. Besides, Pablo will take care of us in our old age.”
“I heard about that! What an amazing project.”
“They uncovered the Golden Gate today.”
“It’s like something from a fairy tale. Does he know anything about the builder?”
David gives himself a refill. “Went to county records in Montesano. Ocean Shores was basically created from scratch in 1960. Bunch of investors who wanted to turn it into Cape Cod West. Palm Beach. Newport.”
“I’d settle for Tillamook.”
Elena giggles like a geisha. “Sorry, teacher.”
“So one of those original lots went to Howard Blaine. The address on the deed is Hoquiam, but I’m not sure if that means anything. He could have just been staying there while he worked on his golf course. I’m working on a little hunch, however. You remember Gerry Kolder?”
Elena gives her puppy-dog smile, her mouth part-way open.
“Kolder’s Hardware! My God, is he still around?”
“Well, he sold the store, but they were nice enough to give me his phone number. I’m meeting up with him Saturday at Lake Sylvia. Got a fishing cabin with his own boat-landing.
“How nice. Tell him I said hi.”
“I don’t know. I always thought Gerry had a thing for you.”
“I’d bet he had a thing for anything female that made the mistake of wandering into that store. Bunch of cavemen.”
“You make a good point.”
“By the way,” she says. “I’ve got news.”
David takes comfort in the word news. News is okay; confession would be alarming.
“You gonna tell me?”
“Yeah, well, I hope this is all right, but the boys seem to be pretty independent these days and…”
“So tell me.”
This is an old game. Elena hates to say anything that might stir the waters, so David has to tease it out of her. She ducks her head to the left as if she’s sneaking up on the subject.
“I got… a job.”
“Que bueno! What’re you doing?”
“Well, a friend of a friend in Aberdeen needed a part-time receptionist at his contractor’s office. I thought, you know, I could contribute my share to Derek’s college fund, make up for the ice cream thing.”
“That’s very thoughtful, honey. And it sounds like something you’ll enjoy. You’re definitely a people-person.”
Now it’s the beauty-queen smile, the one that still yanks the chain at the back of his medulla oblongata.
“I think I will. Thanks.”
The husband and the wife talk into the night. Somewhere along the stream of the conversation, it occurs to David that spouses with mutual affairs might actually treat each other with more civility than standard couples, since the edifice of their happiness depends on getting along with their partner. He also realizes that now he knows what the chubby chaser does for a living, and that he will be using money from the man who’s shtupping his wife to send his kid to college. It’s a brave new world.