Monday, March 10, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Twenty-Eight: Macchu Picchu

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 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.
            “Holy shit!”
            “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?”
            “Of course.”
            “You got a deal.”

Photo by MJV

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