Thursday, February 20, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Twelve: Thelonius Fog

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 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.
            “Everything okay?”
            “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.
            “’Round Midnight?”
            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.

Photo by MJV

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