Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Thirty: Fishing with Gerry

Number Three: Diamond Head
An exact replica of Hawaii’s volcano, in concrete. A small jump-ramp launches the ball into the volcano’s crater, which contains a target space tilted upward at a thirty-degree angle. The target offers three V-shaped steel ridges, six inches high. The top V is three feet across, the center V two feet; the bottom V covers the entire target. The ball slides to a hole at the bottom of each and follows pipes leading to three exit points at the right-hand side of the volcano. Ten feet further, we discovered a small mound containing a scale model of the Honolulu skyline.

David’s heading north, enjoying thick groves of paper birch just beginning to turn yellow, when he comes upon a strip of lakeside cabins, crammed together like brownstones. He pulls over and lets a truck pass so he can cruise the address signs, but it turns out to be a brief search. Gerry has hijacked the old sign from Kolder’s Hardware and hoisted it over his garage door. David squeezes next to a Dodge Ram and steps out to stretch his legs. Gerry galumphs through the front door, an unmistakable diptych of enormous bald head and fireman mustache. He’s a little worn around the edges – veins, eyebags, liver spots – but if David looks this spry at 80 he’ll be a happy man.
“Mr. Falter!” he says, hand outstretched.
“Mr. Kolder!”
“Hope you don’t mind,” says Gerry, who always talks as if he’s doing voice-over work. “Seeing as the weather is so brilliant, I stocked the boat with ice-cold beer and sandwiches.”
“As if any sane man would object to that.”
Gerry cruises the shoreline, sharing tidbits about his neighbors and their previous lives. He anchors them in a tree-shaded spot at the north end, where the Saltsop River feeds in, then drops a hook in the water and sets his pole in a holder.
“Hope you don’t mind. I can’t concentrate unless I’ve got at least a chance to catch a fish. How’s that gorgeous wife of yours?”
“She says hi.”
“After a long day of grumpy male customers, it was always such an occasion when Elena came in. I often wondered why she bothered with us.”
“That’s exactly what she said.”
Gerry is of that generation that still knows how to chortle.
“Ho! Y’got me there. So what’s the big mystery?”
“Well,” says David. “I was hoping to not tell you just yet, so as to keep you all objective-like.”
“This doesn’t involve a murder, does it?”
David nearly spit-takes on his beer. “Hardly! I’m checking out a guy named Howard Blaine. Purchased that lot next to McKenzie’s, back in the original township. Considering the kind of work he was doing, I was betting that Mr. Blaine made some visits to your store.”
Gerry takes a towel and wipes the sweat from his noggin.
“Wow. Those were exciting times. It was like a Gold Rush boomtown, like Brigadoon appearing from the mist. ‘Course, that’s why I succeeded when so many others didn’t: I made my money early, off the builders. My first month, we operated out of an old truck trailer, and at night I worked on building the permanent store. I don’t think I’ve worked harder in my life.
“You would think I’d have a hard time remembering someone that far back, but that Howard was a card! Came by all the time. That man knew more dirty jokes than anyone I ever met. And some funny concrete stories, too.”
“He was a concrete man?”
Oh yeah. And I’ll tell ya, some weird things happen with that stuff. Howard’s favorite was about a housecat who decided to take a nap at the bottom of the foundation form, and, well, let’s just say he was Jimmy Hoffa’d.”
“Oh my God! How’d they find out?”
“That part’s even worse. Cat went missing, for a couple days, and one of the workers said, ‘Howard, I might be imagining this, but I coulda sworn I heard a “meow” when we poured this thing. I just thought it was a squeaky gear.’ Well, they took off the form, and there was the cat’s tail, sticking out of the side of the foundation.”
“Holy crap.”
Gerry produces a wheezy laugh. “Yeah. And how’d you like to be the one who tells the housefrau?”
David takes a long swallow and scans the lake, which is ringed by low hills, a crazy-quilt of deciduous and evergreen. He’s beginning to think that the life of a detective wouldn’t be so bad.
“Any idea where this guy was from?”
“Baltimore. Talked about it all the time. He lost his wife that year. Maggie. I went through the same thing with Wendy. You’re just bombarded with memories, like your mind is feeling the void in your life and trying to fill it back in. That’s probably why he spent so much time at the store – poor guy was lonely. I’m guessing this project was something he’d thought about for a long time. He found out about the Ocean Shores thing and thought, If not now, when?”
“What kind of stuff was he buying?”
“Well he had all the concrete shipped in. Came to me for the little things: odd bits of lumber, copper joints, strips of steel, trowels. Odd little hand tools – awls, punches, scrapers – like he was doing detail work. ‘Course, we asked him about it all the time. He would just smile and say, ‘Can’t tell you. It’s a surprise.’ And then he’d laugh like it was this huge joke. And of course he had the place fenced up like the state pen, so you couldn’t really get a good peek.”
“Anything else? I mean, anything at all.”
“Oops. Wait a sec.” Gerry rushes to check his pole, then returns. “Sorry. Thought I had a bite. He mentioned the library a lot – the one in Aberdeen. Talked about traveling – worked on a freighter when he was young, saw a lot of the world. The one day he asked me about sand. I said, Geez Howard, look around you. And he said it had to be a particular kind. So I told him about a rockery in Tumwater.
“Saw him a couple of times after that, and then he just disappeared. No goodbye, nothin’. This was late September. We figured, well he can’t work in the rain, he’s probably gone back to Baltimore, and he’ll be back in May to finish up. By the next July, I got curious enough to go by the lot and peek through the fence, but all I could find was a half-inch gap at the gate hinge, and all I could see was greenery and brownery. I guess I thought he took whatever he was working on and put it in storage somewhere. So did I pass the test? You gonna tell me what’s going on?”
David’s going to savor this. He opens another beer, chugs it until he gets a slight brain-freeze, then fixes his gaze down the length of the lake. He’s Humphrey Bogart, about to reveal the location of the Maltese Falcon.
“Well, Gerry, yesterday we dug up Diamond Head.”

Photo by MJV

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