Friday, February 28, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Eighteen: Following an Ant

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 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.”
“Mallwalk? Aberdeen?”
“Where else?”
“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.”
“A little.”
“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.

Photo by MJV

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