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The small miracle of a sunny forecast has Thomas up early, sneaking to the shower as Gillian snoozes. He’s early to the course, as well, perched at the tenth mound with a box of doughnuts. Despite his Maryland constitution, he’s freezing his butt off, and when the sky begins to bleed tangerine he can no longer wait. He picks up a sledge hammer and punches a hole in the adobe, then uses a small spade to work it wider. When it reaches two feet, he pulls out handfuls of sand until he reaches a hard surface, then uses the light on his keychain to look inside. What he finds is the tip of an enormous cigar.
“Groucho! It’s Groucho!”
David scrunches his forehead. “But… that doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s the miracle!” says Thomas. “My father got bored and changed his mind – just like normal, everyday people. He improvised. Do you realize how inconceivable that is?”
David gives a blank look, which sends Thomas into a burst of laughter.
“Well of course you don’t! But believe me, it’s like Richard Nixon performing in ‘Cats.’”
“So what’s it look like?” asks Billy.
“Oh, it’s wild. It’s a five-foot-high bust – the cigar, the painted-on mustache, the clown hair. Groucho’s got his mouth wide open, bursting with laughter. I take it you’re supposed to hit the ball into his mouth. The whimsy in that face! And of course it makes one wonder what might be next.”
“You’ll excuse me for saying this,” says David, “but this sounds like a bit of a quantum leap, artistically. Is it possible your father did this from a mold?”
“Oh, certainly,” says Thomas. “But it’s the very notion that tickles me so.”
Abbey jumps in. “I’ve got a friend who works at the Seattle Art Museum. I’ll see if she can help us.”
The waitress arrives with the check. Thomas grabs it.
“Hold on there,” says David.
Thomas peers over his spectacles. “Are you about to fight the rich old lawyer for a check?”
David laughs. “Not at all. But my son needs to pay for Billy.”
“Oh. Okay. Derek, that will be… let’s call it thirty dollars.”
Derek fishes out a twenty and a ten. Thomas slips it into his pocket and puts a credit card in the folder.
Billy gives Derek a salute. “Thanks, pardner.”
“Oh no,” says Derek. “Thank you.”
In a spot where most girls might giggle, Jenny Felicetti gives a slow, calm smile and takes Derek’s hand under the table. David feels a wave of pride so strong he begins to hear piano music. It’s Isaiah, playing Rhapsody in Blue. He turns to Billy.
“Well, rookie? You ready?”
Billy decided to start his re-entry at a measured pace, with an interview in the Daily World – but regardless, the place is packed. David concludes that you should never underestimate the boredom factor of a Rain Coast winter. As pre-ordained, David and Isaiah vamp a few bars of intro, and then Billy makes his entrance to a warm applause coated with buzz. He smiles broadly, takes a bow and perches behind his drums.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s good to be back!”
He waits for an opening and kicks into a mellow swing of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which brings more applause. (My God, thinks David. They’re clap-happy.) They skip the solos, cut straight to the finish and receive so much applause that Billy has to wave them down.
“It’s good to be home for Christmas. It’s a little early for this, but I’d like to introduce the band. On the 88 keys, the tall, dark and talented Isaiah Silverstein.” Applause. “On the horizontal bass, history teacher and softball legend David Falter.” Applause. “Together we are, as of today, the Billy Saddle Trio!”
The applause is so huge that David feels a little embarrassed. His band has become a cause celébre. Billy waves them down again.
“Thank you. It’s been a long time since I have spoken my own name in public.” Laughter. “That said, I’d like to dedicate this next tune to the baseball fans of Memphis, Tennessee.”
They start into the song that is bound to become Billy’s signature: “I’m Sorry” by Connie Francis. Halfway through Isaiah’s solo, David spots Derek and Jenny, peering over the wall of their booth like prairie dogs. Derek’s smile just grows and grows, because his fairy tale has just come true – Rusty has apologized to the township. David nods toward the crowded floor, giving Derek permission to break the rules and dance with Jenny Felicetti.
“So where’d you get the new drums?”
“Frankie. He’s calling it a ‘before-I-start-paying-alimony’ present. It’s what you call a ‘cocktail set’ – a little smaller for the vocalist on the go.”
David laughs. “Have you noticed that most everything these days is funded by pizza?”
“Considering how much pizza I have consumed in my lifetime,” says Billy, “let’s consider it a payback.”
They arrive at the camper. Isaiah takes his place behind the bar.
“What’ll it be, gents?”
“No, no,” says David. “We no play you game no more. You tell us.”
“Okay. Tequila sunrises. Or tequila shots. Or grenadine shots. Orange juice?”
“I’ll have a tequila sunrise,” says Billy.
Isaiah answers in a low, breathy voice. “Tree-mendous. David?”
“So,” says Billy. “Did the interview today.”
“Yep. They sent a reporter from Seattle. The photographer’s coming along tonight.”
“Ah,” says Isaiah. “Thus fulfilling the dream of a little boy who studied the piano year after year so that someday he might appear in Sports Illustrated.”
David laughs. “Smartass. So how’d it go?”
“Pretty well. Didn’t ask me anything I hadn’t considered about a kajillion times. The tough question was, Why now? I went to the Davey Falter playbook and said, because I have done my time, because I have been duly punished, and because I am now entitled to have my life back.”
David slaps the table. “Would you stop it with that?”
“Sorry. But it’s a tree-mendous word. Hey, not to shvitz all over the mitzvah, but have you guys noticed that weird guy at the bar?”
“Retired linebacker type?” asks David.
“Yeah. He is creepin’ me out. Just sits there and stares. And drinks. I suggest we keep an eye on him.”
“Duly noted,” says Billy. “I guess this is part of the new paradigm.”
Isaiah serves up a pair of aesthetically perfect sunrises. Billy rubs his hands.
“Much as I love your work on the pie-annah, I think you may have missed your calling. I mean that is fucking beautiful.”
Now that the players have reached a consensus about the linebacker, his surliness seems to saturate the room. His deepset eyes grow darker by the song, lending him a Cro-Magnon presence. Halfway through the set, they head into “Learnin’ the Blues.” David takes a passing notice of Billy’s ballclub in the title.
At the end, David takes a minute to make some adjustments on Billy’s vocal amp. The dancers filter away from the floor, leaving a single human island. Mr. Surly’s face grows redder and redder as he beats a fist against his thigh. The band goes on full alert. David unplugs his bass in case he has to use it as a weapon. Isaiah stands from his bench – which is really all that he needs to do. Abbey approaches the floor with her hand in her jeans pocket, fingering her pepper spray. Billy sits calmly at his drums, awaiting his first plaintiff.
The large fist rises into the air and produces an accusing finger, shaking with anger. The big mouth opens.
It’s more of a bark than a word, an angry animal behind a fence. The room goes quiet. The echo comes out weaker, a desperate rasp.
A tremor works its way along the big man’s shoulders. He drops his head and holds out his palms.
“We were so close. So. Close. Just one… one…”
He begins to cry. Billy walks around his drums, crosses the floor and embraces him.
“I know. I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
From out of the quiet comes the click of a shutter. David knows immediately that this will be the shot in Sports Illustrated. Billy walks the man back to the bar and buys him a drink. A few songs later, as the fragile structure of the evening’s mood creeps back toward normal, David glances over and notices that the man is gone.
“So Roger,” says David. “Any info on our interlocutor?”
Roger turns from the sink. “Accident of fate. Been here all week, visiting friends. A Memphis fan who suddenly finds himself in the same hotel as Public Enemy Number One. Makes you think, though. Is this gonna get weirder?”
“A couple weeks from now, our Billy will be in Sports Illustrated.”
Roger lets out a low whistle. “Geez, I get enough trouble from the local kooks.”
Isaiah steps up to join them. “I think I’ve got an idea.”
Photo by MJV