Saturday, March 1, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Nineteen: Meriwether

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 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.”
            “No. Meriwether.”
            “Family name.”
            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.

Photo by MJV

Poem by Anne Gelhaus

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