Monday, March 31, 2014

Poem: Three Lanes

Three Lanes

Fendergems in the blink of
twilight, a charcoal skein over
the edge of the city we wait.

Two rivers, opposing.
Candy red, laundry white.
Perfection of teamwork.

Pressing does no good.
Ten feet gained, ten feet lost.
Setting off alarms.

Do it for your own sake.
For the candy red inside your chest,
the pulsing, musclebound traffic cop.

You’ll be home when you’re home.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo
Photo by MJV

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Forty-Eight: The Assist from the Mist

David has become a little obsessed with this idea of the single visual flash. Reading a book on brain function, he learns that writers sometimes receive entire novels this way.
This has been the year of the visual flash. Narrow the scope to the Nygaard outfield and he still has quite a handful: Larry collapsing in left; Billy firing his desperate shot from right; Pablo beyond center, dangling from a tree-branch; Derek’s hands covered in blood.
This little slide-show comes to him on the darkness of the stage, as he waits for more. First is Isaiah in the world’s largest tuxedo, caged by a spotlight as he plays the opening of “Nature Boy,” following the first phrase with a digression of tonal spelunking. In truth, their singer is not healthy enough for a full performance; it’s Isaiah’s genius that has made this evening possible.
The cavework continues for a couple minutes as Isaiah works his way along the quirky melody. When he arrives at the final resolve, he worries the chord down the octaves, plants a double-note with his left hand, and gives a nod. David kicks in with the bass, the stage manager raises a spot on a red leather armchair, and a voice rises from the dark, weathered by a thousand visual flashes. As the melody rises and falls, the singer crosses the stage. He sounds the final line as a silhouette, then sinks into the chair and smiles.
“You were probably expecting a white dude, huh?”
This gets a laugh, but also the hum of a curious beehive.
“My name’s Jon Hendricks, and I’m here to introduce my friend. Would you please welcome to the stage, after an extended run in the ICU of Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, EMI recording artist Billy Saddle!”
Billy rolls into a spot at stage right. The audience rises, clapping, shouting, whistling, stomping. For five minutes. Billy crosses to the center, stands from his wheelchair and embraces Jon, both of them smiling and weeping. It's ridiculous.
But it is Billy, and there is a job to do. He settles into the armchair, wipes his face with a handkerchief and nods to Isaiah. The song is “Dancing on the Ceiling,” which may seem an odd choice, until you hear the words. The singer goes to bed each night and finds his lover dancing overhead. For a man who spent the summer in bed, whose new wife is a dancer, it’s note-perfect.

The after-party is a modest affair, although Charley has made sure to send up some champagne and appetizers. David is feasting on crab puffs when he sees Billy alone on the balcony, and goes out to join him.
“This is the spot, you know.”
“The spot?”
“I proposed to Joyce, right here.”
“Hallowed ground.”
David grabs a teak chair and pulls it over so he can talk at Billy’s level. They peer through the bars of the railing at a dark ocean.
“I hear this is your new home.”
“Yep. 24-hour security. Bodyguards on call for field trips.”
David’s still a little shaken by Billy’s fragile appearance – though he knows that the healing process will take a while.
“So maybe I shouldn’t even say this, but won’t that be a little confining?”
Billy puts his hands on the railing and plays a little roll.
“Well, let’s look at my choices. I could do the undercover Jack Kerouac thing, but then I’d have to give up the trio, the audience, and Joyce.”
“Wouldn’t Joyce come with you?”
“I think I’ve put Joyce through enough. But see, it’s all in the way you look at it. A lot of people think the blues are confining: the twelve bars, the 1-5-4 chord pattern. But it’s that very structure that allows you to improvise so freely. So I will stay in my voluntary prison and have myself one hell of a time. Besides, it’s pretty generous of the casino.”
“Oh, I think Charley knows which side his bread is buttered on. You are a hot property.”
Billy laughs. “What a life! The more bad shit happens to me, the more valuable I become. Why, if I could survive a tsunami, or a fire, I’d be a billionaire!”
“Well do me a favor and don’t. By the way, we saved your life by going to a ballgame.”
“No kidding! I thought I smelled hot dogs.”
Billy scratches at his soul patch a recent addition.
“I was having that damn dream – the one where Frankie keeps me from grabbing the ball. It was running on a loop, over and over. And can you imagine, if he had done that, how boring my life would be?”
David smiles.
“Really? That’s really how you feel?”
“I’ve done the time, I’ve faced the artillery. Now I want the biggest fucking payoff in history! And Pasco Fernandez. I still can’t believe that. I worshipped that son-of-a-bitch.”
“Well. You just did him a huge favor by not dying.”
Billy laughs his way into a cough, then puts a hand on his ribcage.
“Man! I got so much spackle in there, I can’t even laugh. Well, I’m sorry to say it, but fuck Pasco. That’s what you get for believing in curses.”
“I’m right there with you. I was afraid you’d pull that Christian forgiveness shit on me.”
Hell no. Forgiveness is for people who deserve it. How’s the team?”
“Called it a year. Too much bad juju.”
“Aw, that’s a shame. Probably giving it up myself – for good. It was awfully nice to prove that I could play. But now I’ll be too busy touring with my jazz band.”
A sneaky smile spreads across Billy’s face as the comment unfolds inside David’s brain.
“Umm… bega pardon?”
“Assuming you teachers still get the summer off.”
David goes to slap Billy on the shoulder, then realizes he can’t.
“Man! It’s always something with you, ain’t it?”
“It certainly is.”

With all the chaos surrounding Billy, David has managed to go the whole summer without peeking at the golf course. As he and Abbey pass beneath a sign reading Blaine’s Mini-Golf, he expects to be assaulted with primary colors. Instead, he finds that Pablo and Thomas have taken the natural approach. Devil’s Tower looks like Devil’s Tower, Marilyn looks like Marilyn. And the greens are actually green, surrounded by lawns of freshly installed sod.
“Wow!” says Abbey. “It’s so… tasteful.”
“Yeah. What’s with that?”
They start at the clubhouse, which is done up like a classic Scottish tavern, with dark varnished tables and old prints of golf courses. Over the false hearth is a painting of a stern-looking man in a ‘50s-style suit, his dark eyes boring through the viewer.
“So that’s Howard,” says Abbey.
“He does a good job of hiding his inner child.”
“Hiding? Hell, holding it ransom.”
“Further explaining why Thomas was so puzzled about this.”
An adjacent plaque gives the history of the course’s creation, but of course they already know it. What’s more intriguing to David is a nearby display holding two dozen children’s books.
“’The Redemption of Rusty Littleman.’ For God’s sake. When did they have time to do this?”
Abbey smiles. “The Falters are clearly a breed of supermen. Why do you think I was so eager to get ahold of your genetic material?”
“Boy! There’s a sexy come-on.” He reaches down to speak to Abbey’s growing belly. “You hear that, Billy? No pressure.”
They hear the echo of an amplified voice, and head outside to find Pablo on a small platform next to the first tee. David notices a small ceramic figure on the front counter.
“Hey! It’s Rusty.”
“Future golfers of America!” says Pablo. “Before we open up the course, we have a small presentation. Allow me to introduce the son of the course’s creator, Mr. Thomas Blaine.”
Thomas boards the platform and accepts his applause.
“Thank you. I don’t want to keel the little ones from their tee-times, so let me just express my gratitude to Mr. Laney, to Gerry Kolder and his miracle workers, and especially to Pablo for taking such great care with my father’s buried treasure for public display. If he were here today, I think he’d be having a great time, even though he’d be doing his best to pretend that he wasn’t.”
He pauses for laughter.
“In developing the ideas for presenting this course, we wanted to pay tribute to the unique qualities of Ocean Shores. At the same time, we found ourselves in the presence of a growing folk legend, a man by the name of Billy Saddle. The legend grew even larger a couple of months ago, when Billy was shot during a softball game. He survived that shooting, in large part, due to the heroics of our own Pablo Falter.
This brings a round of shouts and applause. Pablo gives a modest wave.
“Billy and his band will be playing later, but right now we’d like to turn your attentions thataway, where Pablo has a little presentation.”
Pablo stands beside some tall object beneath an artist’s drape. Billy’s there, too, resting in his wheelchair as Joyce sits next to him, holding his hand. Equipped with a cordless mic, Pablo handles the sendoff like a TV reporter.
“Thanks, Thomas. In researching miniature golf courses, we found that many of them feature a 19th hole, which offers players the chance to win a free round. With ours, the player shoots the ball onto a game board very much like a pachinko machine. If the ball lands in the center of nine slots – Bingo! Free game. The board is contained in a glass-walled pedestal. On top of that pedestal, we have this…”
Naturally, Isaiah’s on drape assignment. He grips the fabric as high as he can and pulls it away to reveal a life-size bronze of Billy, about to unleash a throw.
“The Assist from the Mist,” says Pablo. “Taken from a photo by my little brother Derek. The artist is Hal Renagan, a sculptor from Seattle. We’re hoping that this will be the play that Billy will be remembered for, and not any other baseball-related incidents.”
Billy gets up from his chair, sidels over to the statue and stares at himself. Then he turns with a smile.
“That is one handsome son-of-a-bitch.”
“And now,” calls Thomas. “The moment you have all been waiting for. Blaine’s Mini-Golf will be donating all proceeds from this opening weekend to our local music-in-the-schools program, First Notes. We have selected a member of that program, six-year-old violinist Sara Kipler, to be our first golfer. Ready, Sara?”
A curly-headed blonde with Shirley Temple dimples drops a pink ball onto the starter’s mat. She takes a healthy cut and sends the ball through the temple gate. It rolls along the angled slopes of Macchu Picchu, takes a rapid charge at the hole, then lips out as everybody groans.
But the ball’s not done. Its flirtation with the cup flings it leftward against a concrete border, which knocks it right back toward the target. By now, the crowd is shouting, but it’s not enough. The ball comes to a stop at the very edge of the cup. The crowd laments.
Thomas hands his mic to Gillian, walks to the green and studies the situation. He folds his legs till he’s on all fours, ducks his head to the greensward and blows as hard as he can.
The ball drops. The crowd goes wild.

Photo by MJV

Frozen Music Re-Released by Dragonfly Press

Inspired by some unexpected feedback from long-time readers, I decided to rewrite my 1994 choral novel, Frozen Music, a few months ago, for a possible re-release on Amazon Kindle.  I've been posting the chapters on my Operaville blogsite. The folks at Dragonfly Press, an award-winning publisher in California's Gold Country, read a few of the installments and decided that they wanted to publish it, first as a Kindle e-book and later in print form. I'm pleased to announce that the Kindle version went on line today at

Following are the synopses and bio info that you'll find there:

The more Michael Moss refuses to watch his conductor, Amy Fine, the more she becomes determined to make him watch. The ensuing battle of wills - and his curious flare for public soakings - threatens to pull Michael out of the deep freeze, and force him to exorcise Stacy Wilkes, the tempestuous alcoholic who turned his heart to stone. A 20th anniversary edition of the classic novel by the author of Gabriella's Voice and Operaville.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six published novels, a thirty-year opera critic, and drummer for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland. As a tenor in San Jose State's concert choir, he performed all of the pieces featured in Frozen Music.

Based in Columbia, California, Dragonfly Press is the publisher of fine poetry, prose, and the award-winning literary journal The Montserrat Review.

Photo by MJV

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Poem: Egress


Careering into a phalanx one is
wise to take a breath.
Remove all thoughts, check a map.

            You asked me for a toothpick.
            I gave you one.

Destruction, liberation.
We build our traps and fall in love.

            You asked me for a bottle of glue.
            I gave you one.

Look for the button next to the steel jaws.
Remember that you have a thumb.

            You hinted.
            I certainly love toothpicks.
            I adore bottles of glue.

The fetal position is nothing if
not designed for comfort.

            Whenever I could, I brought you
            toothpicks, bottles of glue.

But walking demands that the
soles of your feet face the earth.

            Rummaged through flea markets,
            thrift shops, hardware stores.

You might fall.
You might run, dance, jump, cavort.
The odds are good.

            Ate at steakhouses.
            Slipped toothpicks into my pockets.

Would it help if I kicked you in the ass?

            And now

            You have built a
            cage entirely of toothpicks.
            You could smash it with a
            kick, but you won’t.
            You’ve put in too much
            sweat, care, patience.
            It’s a work of art.

            But perhaps you should have
            built it from the outside.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo
Photo by MJV

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Forty-Seven: Underwater

Buy the book on Amazon Kindle.
Back from the cheesy waterfront tourist traps, Pablo and David stop next to the Alaskan Viaduct. The sides of the walkway are painted with the murals of schoolchildren, regional subjects like Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle. Pablo points out a native riding an Orca like a surfboard.
That is hilarious.” His voice is hoarse from three straight days of talking.
“So,” says David. “How do you feel about taking out Pasco Fernandez?”
Pablo grins. “Kinda awesome, actually. Is that weird?”
“With Billy in the ICU?”
“Listen, pal. If it weren’t for you, Billy wouldn’t be in the ICU. I’d be scattering his ashes off Point Brown.”
David puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, that was the most freakishly courageous act I’ve ever seen. And I hope to God you never do something like that again.”
“I’m kinda thinkin’ I won’t.”
“And that slide. Brilliant! How’d you come up with that?”
“Not sure. I guess I figured it would be safer down there.”
The wind whips up, sending bits of paper against the chain link. David wraps his hand around the back of Pablo’s neck.
“So… that little Clint Eastwood speech. That seemed a little rehearsed.”
Pablo smiles.
“Every night since that goddamn holdup. I gotta admit, turning the tables like that, that was powerful. But don’t worry. I won’t turn into a superhero or anything.”
“Not according to the local media.”
“I know. They really went on about that. I mean, the initial rush was great, but now I’m walkin’ around town, people are honking at me, waving at me, stopping to talk. I feel like I’m running for office!”
“The world is hungry for heroes, pal. But don’t worry, give it a month, things’ll calm down.”
Elena and Derek appear at the top of the stairs. Derek and Pablo head on, toward the hills of Seattle. Elena stops to catch her breath.
“Nice little neighborhood you’ve got here. Who knew Pioneer Square had a hotel?”
“Yeah. It’s been a nice little vacation, in a really weird sort of way.”
“Abbey handling your finals?”
“Yeah. It’s hard for her to leave Billy, but she also figured it would be nice for me to have a day with you guys.”
Elena takes a long, thoughtful blink.
“I hate to say it, but I’m beginning to like that woman.”
David smiles. “That’s what I was noticing – right before all hell broke loose. My two favorite women, laughing together.”
Elena tweaks his nose, an old gesture.
“Well, don’t think that we were talking about you. Egomaniac. Come on, let’s catch our children.”

A day later, David and Abbey walk downhill through the International District. In a courtyard between buildings, they discover a manmade waterfall, rushing over a pile of boulders, and sit down to watch.
“Oh God, David. All those tubes and monitors – it’s not really Billy in there. I feel like he’s gone off on another journey, and this time he might never come back. I know I’m supposed to be the tough, tragic woman, but I don’t want to lose another one.”
David massages her fingers, one by one. They watch the falls in silence. There’s something immortal about this moment. He knows that it will come back to him, years from now, in random flashes. He straddles the bench and wraps her in his arms, the better to whisper his intentions.
“Let’s give him an incentive.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Have you noticed that Billy can be used as either a male or female name?”
“Billy Falter. Okay. You got it.”
David looks vaguely uphill. There you go, old man. The gauntlet has been thrown.

Two days later, they stand outside the glass wall of the ICU. Billy hasn’t improved; Billy hasn’t regressed. He’s holding them all hostage.
“Poor Joyce,” says Abbey.
“How long has she been in there?”
“Two hours. She just holds his hand and stares, like she can will him back to life.”
“Would you do that for me?”
“Yes. But don’t make me.”
“You got it.”
David wanders to a seat in the corner. He sees a sports section, picks it up, and returns to Abbey.
“I’ve got an idea. Do you think you can drag her away?”
“I’ll give it a shot.”

They’re walking the Avenue toward the brick broadsides of Safeco Field. On game days, the street morphs into a market, the curbsides lined with vendors. David buys a Mariners cap and places it on Joyce’s head. This brings a smile that is worth all the salmon in the Sound.
“What’s this for?”
“Billy couldn’t make it today. He designated me to be your date, and buy you stuff.”
“Won’t your girlfriend be jealous?”
Abbey laughs. “I’ll share – as long as you’re a good girl.”
Joyce looks down, working what little remains of her fingernails.
“I’m not a good girl. I wasn’t there. There was a show on TV and I had to watch it. What are we doing here? Why aren’t we with Billy?”
Abbey rubs a hand along her back.
“Okay, let the poet explain this. Do you believe that you and Billy have a mental connection?”
She giggles. “Sometimes I think our brain cells shuttle between us like little commuter planes.”
“Well, listen. We sort of feel the same way. I’ve got the blood connection. David’s got the musical connection. For whatever reason, Billy ended up a mile away from a major league stadium. We’re going to watch a game, and have as much fun as we can. Maybe Billy will pick up on that, and see just how much he has to live for.”
Joyce gives her a despairing look. “Do you really believe that?”
“I believe it’s worth a shot.”
She looks up the street, at the crowd of people massing toward the stadium.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
They latch on to a good game. The Mariners rally in the eighth to take a 4-3 lead on the Angels, then their closer loads the bases before striking out the last batter. They drink overpriced beers; they eat hot dogs with sauerkraut. They crack peanuts and leave the shells everywhere. They shoot up from their seats, give high-fives to strangers and, for a few moments, they entirely forget about Billy.
They’re migrating toward the hotel, just beginning to separate from the herd, when Abbey stops.
“What?” says David.
“I hear jazz.”
They find it at a kitschy Italian restaurant, where a freckle-faced veritable infant sits at the piano, playing New Orleans stride like Fats Waller. David waits until he finishes “Basin Street Blues,” then drops a five into his tip jar.
“You are awfully good.”
“Thanks. I’m studying classical at U-Dub. Please don’t tell my professors.”
“Your secret’s safe. Any chance you could accompany my girlfriend on something?”
“Oh. I don’t know. I’ve had some bad experiences.”
“You’ve heard of Billy Saddle?”
“Sure. That guy who got shot.”
“My girlfriend’s his niece.”
“Wow. Sorry ‘bout that. Okay. Bring her up.”
The song is “What’ll I Do?” Abbey’s delivery convinces him, more than ever, that she’s got Billy’s magical genes. Given the situation, she has chosen the most devastating possible song, but she manages to deliver the emotions without falling prey to them.
During the piano solo, she gives David a meaningful nod. He takes Joyce to an open piece of floor and they begin to waltz. Joyce closes her eyes, and he knows that she’s dancing with Billy.

The three of them stop at a railing near the ferry docks. The sun is teetering atop the Olympic Mountains. David slaps Abbey on the shoulder.
“You had a pretty decent shot at that foul ball.”
Abbey gives a prim smile. “We Saddles prefer to stay away from foul balls.”
Ella Fitzgerald begins to sing “Summertime.” It’s Abbey’s phone. She walks away, sharing a rather intense conversation. She returns with a face full of tears, gilded by the sunset. David’s having a hard time finding his breath.
She smiles. “He’s out of the ICU.”
Joyce and David descend on her.

The good news filters back to Ocean Shores, and Billy becomes Harborview’s most popular unconscious patient. The visitors include Charley Nations, Gerry Kolder, the Blaines, Derek and Jenny, Oscar, Isaiah, Parthenia – even Ralph the bartender, who shows them his new teeth.
Billy is listed as stable, his vitals rising like a bull market. His visiting hours become a sort of consciousness lottery. His wife, niece and bass player harbor secret jealousies, reluctant to cede the grand prize to a Johnny-come-lately.
Three nights along, David is seated at bedside, reading the most brilliant final thesis he has ever seen, Voltaire’s Enlightenment and the Genesis of American Democracy by Michael Butler. The words virtually sing from the page, so David plays along, whistling the sax line from “Take Five.” Beyond his reading glasses, he sees a faint motion, and realizes that Billy’s right index finger is twitching in 5/4.
David turns to Billy’s ear and sings the line on a series of da-da-das. When he reaches the bridge, the finger stops and the old eyes open, revealing a faint echo of those mesmerizing blues.
“Hi, Billy.”
He manages a shadow of a smile.
“Hi Frankie. Did we win?”
“The softball game?”
“The pennant!”

Photo by MJV

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Poem: Lip


Meriwether fences, a taste of
neverbeen to lighten the step.
Jumping horse, pole vault, footstool.

Sad-eyed semaphore in the eye of
the maelstrom. She calls for help,
but never when help can be given.

So much timing swept over the
falls, this antic come-and-go,
inches from the payoff.

Once, a blade of grass that held firm.

A winning putt.
Corporate blimps, television cameras,
men whispering into microphones.

A man in white swings the
pendulum, leftward parabola,
a line he drew in his head.
The blade sees it coming,
white planet, perfectly cratered,
reaches for his cellulose center and
makes himself big.

To the whispering men,
it seems that the ball has
met with an invisible field,
trick of magnetics, dangling on the
edge like a woman about to say yes.

The smile disappears.
The crowd exhales.
The engraver pauses.

Ernesto finishes his coffee,
picks out his finest clippers,
leaves a set of dewborne
prints across the green.
Leaning over the cup, he finds a
chlorophyll cowlick stabbing the white.

Slides it into his wallet.
Has it bronzed, places it on his
mantel, next to the pebble from ’79.

From the collection Fields of Satchmo

Photo by MJV

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Forty-Six: Shots

FREE on Amazon Kindle, March 25-29.
The following game is an unexpected pleasure. No press, no townies, no freaky plays spelled with Capital Letters – just another night at Nygaard Field. The weather is a slate-gray overcast, but warm, keeping both players and watchers at a cozy temperature. Their opponents, a team called Bugaboo, is solidifying its hold on last place. They seem to be enjoying themselves regardless, spending most of their energy joking at their own suckage. It’s times like these that David feels hopeful for the future of mankind.
Another bit of civilization is blossoming in the stands, where Abbey and Elena are sharing their standby snacks – Abbey’s Rainier cherries, Elena’s carrots and ranch dip – and laughing. The sight is both pleasing and distracting. For one thing, he hasn’t told Elena about the pregnancy, and he feels it ticking like a bomb. Later on, he will use this as an excuse for his inexplicable faux pas.
Baseball has a strict hierarchy for the calling of fly balls. Any outfielder, for instance, may call off any infielder, for the simple reason that it’s easier to catch a ball while moving forward. The low man on the totem pole is the pitcher, who may be called off by anyone.
The batter lifts a high pop-up that seems to be on a precise path toward the pitcher’s mound. David calls it, and follows it back as it drifts over his shoulder. So intent is his focus that he fails to notice Oscar, who comes in from second and calls “Mine! Mine! Mine!” in a drill-sergeant bark. As soon as David pockets the ball, he rams into Oscar, and the two of them fall to the dirt. David manages to hang onto the ball, but the positive outcome is no consolation to Oscar, who jumps to his feet, righteously pissed off.
“What the hell are you doing?”
A gun goes off. From his position on the ground, David sees a man in a black hooded sweatshirt, stalking his way toward a fallen Billy. The man raises his arm, but before he can fire a figure in white streaks in from behind, goes into a slide and clips the man’s legs, sending him flying.
David is running, his breath chuffing, the grass flying beneath his feet. Thye man is flat on his back, gripping his right leg. Pablo has recovered the gun and stands five feet away, aiming it at the man’s head.
“How does it feel, asshole? How does it feel to be on the other end? You think you got a right to take a man’s life? You think you got a right to play God? Well I’m God now, you sick fuck.”
The man lets go of his leg and looks up with a strange calm.
“Go ahead.”
“Don’t!” David comes to a stop and holds up a hand. “Pablo, you don’t want to kill anybody. Billy’s hurt. We have to get him some help.”
Pablo takes two hard breaths and swallows.
“Okay. On your stomach. Hands behind your back.”
The man rolls over quietly. David takes the belt from his softball pants and ties it around the man’s hands. Oscar does the same with his feet.
“Hold him down,” says Pablo. “Don’t let him budge.”
Oscar puts a knee on the man’s back; he offers no resistance. Oscar would like very much to bash his head in, but he’s seen enough cop shows to know that this is not a good idea.
Twenty feet away, Derek kneels next to Billy, pressing his hands to Billy’s chest, which is covered in blood.
“Oh God, Dad, it’s everywhere!”
“Okay. Okay. Our best bet is to get him out of here.” He takes off his shirt and hands it to Derek. “Keep pressing, but gently, okay? And don’t move him.”
David turns to find Abbey; her eyes are wide with fright.
“Is he…?” She spies Derek’s hands, covered in blood, and hides her face in David’s chest. “Oh God, oh God.”
David holds her by the shoulders.
“Abbey! Need to focus now, okay?”
“Did you call 911?”
“Yes. Elena. They’re on the way.”
“Good. Don’t worry. We’ll get him out of here.”
Somewhere up the peninsula, a siren winds its way up to pitch. It’s a sweet sound.

They watch as the paramedics strap Billy to a gurney and load him up. The sheriff, Jim McConaghy, locks up the shooter and makes the rounds, gathering eyewitness accounts. David glances at Jim’s cruiser, parked in shallow right, and sees a Latino with a graying goatee, maybe mid-forties. He leans his head against the window and stares. There’s not much there. He seems to have surrendered to his fate. Relieved of command, David feels a little adrift, and he’s glad when Abbey comes and takes his hand.
“We better go. You want to drive?”
“Yeah. Give me something to do.”
David starts the engine. Abbey gives him an alarmed look.
“Oh shit. Joyce. We better get her.”
“Oh, Jesus. Okay. Call her. Tell her we’ll pick her up.”
They arrive five minutes later. Joyce is on the porch, pacing. David doesn’t have time for the standard sit-down-I-have-bad-news, so he takes her firmly by the arms.
“Joyce. Billy’s been shot. They’re taking him to Aberdeen.”
Those eyes – he knew those eyes would be trouble. The whites spread out, and he can feel the weakness in her knees. He slips an arm around her waist and keeps her balanced. It feels like they’re about to start dancing.
“Oh God. Is it… How bad?”
“It’s bad. Chest wound. He’s breathing, but unconscious. I need you to be real strong, okay? We need to go right now.”
She wipes her eyes, swallows, and heads for the truck, moving like a sleepwalker. Abbey gets out and lets her in so she can sit between them – so Abbey can hold her hand. They take 109 into the forested hills. Joyce lets out the thought that’s torturing her.
“I can’t lose him again.”
Abbey wraps her arm around Joyce’s shoulder and joins her in a fit of crying. David steels himself, trying to map out the fastest route to the hospital. Gray’s Harbor opens before them. He takes a left.
But the hospital’s a false destination. Billy’s been flown via helicopter to Seattle. The three of them rush back to the truck and keep going. The silence grows too deep; David switches on the radio, harmless Top 40 oatmeal. He reaches for the volume and sees that his hand is shaking, adrenaline working its way out. The whole episode plays out in a single visual flash, and he realizes that the shooter might have gotten Pablo, too. David feels a wave of heat in his forehead, sees himself taking the gun and blowing the bastard’s brains out the back of his head. A traffic sign flashes past. He grips the wheel.

For a moment, the fear gives way to the routine dread of bureaucracy, but the power of celebrity intercedes. At the mention of Billy’s name, the young Filipina at the desk smiles and guides them down the hall to a conference room. At the end of a half-hour, Joyce has exiled herself to a window seat, where she watches the traffic on Interstate 5. She has begun to sway back and forth, like an autistic child.
Abbey is madly texting, keeping the extended family up to date. David is content to sit at the head of the table, a self-appointed CEO, stewing in his thoughts, parsing the single visual flash for clues. For one thing, the shooter seems familiar. He suspects that this is just what the mind does, trying to pull reason out of randomness. Occam’s Razor says that the shooter is recently fired, recently divorced, and/or recently bankrupt, and saw Billy as a handy target for his anger. And fifty bucks says that he’s a Blues fan.
An hour into their limbo, they receive a visitor: short, good-looking, a streak of blood on his scrubs for credibility. His hair is dark and precisely cut, his features vaguely WASPy.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Ferotte. You’re with Mr. Saddle?”
David stands. “Yes. I’m a friend, David. Wife Joyce. Niece, Abbey.”
“I need to be a little short – one of those nights.” He looks to Abbey, and performs the standard double-take at her missing arm. “Your uncle is lucky. Missed the heart, the major arteries, the organs, the spinal cord. But. A punctured lung, and lots of bleeding. We’ve patched him up as best we could, but the rest is tricky business. Have to be careful about shock, infection – also, possible oxygen deprivation of the brain. In a wound of this type, the blood abandons the brain and heads for the injured regions.
“I’m not going to tell you that he’s going to make it. But he’s in the right place, so he’s got a decent chance. He’ll have to stay in Intensive Care for a while, and even if he stabilizes, he’ll be unconscious for upwards of a week.”
Joyce rises. Her eyes are bleary with crying.
“Is there… anything we can do?”
Dr. Ferotte sets his jaw. “Pray. Hope. Be around. Other than that, it’s up to Billy.”
David sees the need to let him off the hook.
“Thanks, doctor.”
“How long can we stay in here?” asks Abbey.
The doctor smiles. “I’m pretty sure you’re safe till morning.”
He leaves and they’re back to limbo. David wakes from a brief shut-eye to find that it’s two in the morning. Across the table is a sharp-featured Asian woman in a blue blouse and a corduroy jacket.
“I’m really sorry,” she says. “I’m Liz Gong, Seattle Times. Are you David Falter?”
David looks around for Joyce and Abbey but finds neither. He’s half-certain that he’s dreaming.
“Yeah. Yes. That’s me.”
“Could I ask you a few questions?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Liz gives a practiced smile.
“You’re Billy’s friend?”
“I play bass in his trio. And I manage his softball team.”
“So, this… shooting. Does it surprise you that someone came after him?”
David pauses, wondering how careful he should be with his words. But he can’t escape his historian self – he loathes spin doctors. Besides, he’s too tired to lie.
“I never expected something this serious. But he does have a way of attracting… problem children. He’s got good security at his performances, but I did worry about the other times. In fact, there was a story about the softball team in the Aberdeen paper. Maybe that’s how this guy found him.”
Liz finishes a line of writing and looks up.
“Now, there’s some rumor about a hero in this story?”
“My son, Pablo. He was playing center. The shooter was approaching Billy, looking to finish him off. Pablo’s a fast kid, he ran up behind him and took him out with a slide. Exactly the way a runner would take out a shortstop to break up a double play. Sent him flying; sent the gun flying. Pablo picked up the gun, and we tied the guy up.”
Liz smiles. “Wow! So how does a father feel about that?”
“Pretty proud. And amazed. But not surprised. That kid does some pretty incredible stuff. ‘Course, if I’d’ve had any time to think about it, I would have been scared to death.”
“I can imagine.”
Liz follows with several detail questions – ages, names, hometowns – then turns to something philosophical.
“So… if someone asked you to describe Billy very briefly, what would you say?”
David folds his hands over his knee. He’s surprised to see that he’s still wearing his softball pants.
“The most gracious soul that I have ever encountered. An absolutely charming and kind man.”
“Thanks, David.” She shakes his hand and is about to leave when he stops her.
“Hey. Maybe you could tell me something. Any ID on the shooter?”
Liz flips through her notebook. “Yeah. Odd name. Oh! Here. Pasco. Pasco Fernandez.”

Pasco hailed from the remarkable baseball country of the Dominican Republic, where he was raised in a highly superstitious family. In his second year with the Milwaukee Brewers, he went through the bats of 17 teammates before he found the one that broke his slump. Once he dreamt that meeting Tom Hanks would improve his fielding. He harassed his agent into arranging a lunch, and insisted that Hanks try on his mitt. That was the year that he won his first Gold Glove.
Pasco was also what players call a “red-ass,” a player who demands a lot from his teammates, and who loses his temper when he doesn’t get it. The reason that he got away with it was that he demanded even more from himself. Five years into his career, Pasco already had three All-Star appearances and a batting title.
One would think that a superstitious man would find a trade to a famously cursed ballclub devastating. But Pasco also believed that curses could be broken, and that those who did the breaking were destined for immortality. He took the Memphis Blues as his personal project, and he harangued his teammates until they performed. It was said that the ’98 team was so unified because every one of them hated Pasco. But every one of them would have to admit that they liked the results. During a celebration following a walk-off homer, one player took the opportunity to deliver an “accidental” elbow to Pasco’s jaw. Pasco never complained; after all, they had won.
The rest of the Blues eventually came to peace with the Grand Fool Double. More than a few of them reasoned that they should have won the game on the field, regardless – or in Game 7.
Not Pasco. He had come that close to being the Blues’ longed-for savior. Even the quirky shot to right was a testament to his hard work and determination. Reviewing tape the night before the game, he noticed that the Cardinals’ reliever, PiƱon, when he was in a crunch situation, liked to steal a first strike with a slider on the outside of the plate. When the moment came, he followed that slider all the way out and slapped it into right. Pasco knew that breaking Big John’s curse depended on the best efforts of every Blues player and every Blues fan. One of their own had betrayed the cause. Months later, Pasco was still railing against that great idiot, Billy Saddle.
The Grand Fool Double took all the spirit right out of Pasco. Spring training was horrible. Even his famed glovework was going to pot. Two months into the season, he was batting .189, booting grounders and making erratic throws, even as he delivered tirades against management, teammates, umpires and other satanic forces.
Pasco discovered the downside to being a red-ass. Once you stopped playing well, there was no one to stand up for you. The Blues kept him in the lineup until the All-Star break, hoping against hope that the magic would return, then they shipped him and his $6 million contract to their double-A squad in Iowa.
He never reported. He turned up in Miami, where a scuffle with a bartender won him a six-month sentence for assault.
For Pasco Fernandez, baseball was gone. The following years brought a long string of failed jobs, drug addictions, alcoholic binges and small-time assault charges. Four years later, he declared bankruptcy. Six months before the shooting, his wife Angela, a devout Catholic whose patience probably qualified her for sainthood, gave in to the pleas of her friends and filed for divorce.
It was easy to see why, out of all the potential freaks out there, Pasco Fernandez would be the one who picked up a gun. Billy’s reemergence must have infuriated him.

Photo by MJV