Friday, March 21, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Thirty-Eight: Hooligans

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Number Eleven: Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn lounges atop a grand piano, laughing as she appears to watch the proceedings on the green below. She’s dressed in a long, flowing gown; the work on the folds is masterful. The edge of the piano is echoed in a curving metal ridge that bisects the green. Strike to the right of the ridge and it guides the ball gently toward the hole. Hit it to the left and you’re stuck in a very unfriendly corner.

Billy is using a wrench to tune his drumheads when Roger approaches with two companions. They are clean-cut men in their thirties, wearing Blues caps.
“Mr. Saddle! These gents are Memphis fans, but they claim to have peaceful intentions.”
Billy stands and sets the wrench on his snare. “Well! That’s good enough for me.”
The taller of the two steps forward and shakes his hand.
“I’m Hoyt Carruthers. This here is Axel Hemsworth. We sell insurance out of Lexington, Kentucky. We were in Portland on business, and when we read about your coming-out party we just had to come up and say hi."
“We also figgered we owe you an apology,” says Axel. “Over the years, we have said some very unkind things about you.”
“That’s hardly unusual,” says Billy.
“Yes. But if you take these unkind things and multiply them by several million, you might end up driving a perfectly decent man from his hometown.”
“Besides,” says Hoyt. “If that ’98 team had any balls, they would have scored a few runs and gotten you off the hook.”
“Damn straight!” says Axel.
“Anyways,” says Hoyt. “We’re glad to see that you’ve come out of hiding, and we are here to show our support.”
Billy stands with his hands on his hips.
“I am truly touched, gentlemen. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
Hoyt chuckles. “I guess the other thing is, we can’t wait to tell our buddies we met the infamous Billy Saddle.”
“Infamous,” says Billy. “I feel like I should just adopt that as my new title.”
“We were also wondering if you could sign this for us.” Axel reaches into the pocket of his windbreaker and pulls out a snow-white baseball.
Billy takes the ball and runs a thumb over the red stitching. “Dig me. I’m a sports star.”

Hoyt and Axel spend the first set as Billy’s personal cheering section, attentive to each song, the first to clap at each ending. After a fairly epic rendition of “Night and Day,” they rev up a chant of “Bil-ly! Bil-ly!” This leaves Isaiah a little chagrinned, since the piece is intended as a piano showcase, in fact a note-for-note transcription of the orchestral arrangement from Sinatra’s recording. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with a full house and a packed dance floor. And it’s nice at break-time when Billy apologizes for his rowdy fans.
Isaiah raises his nose, snob-like. “It was so much better when you were gone. We didn’t have all those people to interrupt our playing.”
During the second set, it becomes apparent that Hoyt and Axel are getting sloppy drunk. They keep cheering before the songs are over, and then, when they realize their mistake, they burst into noisy laughter. David begins to notice the discomfort of the regulars. Abbey looks like she’s about to storm the bar, and David feels sorry for Hoyt and Axel if she does.
Fortunately, the Kentuckians turn back toward the bar and enter the semi-conscious giggle/snicker phase. David writes them off and slips into the steady hum of loungehood.
Billy’s working through a spare setting of “The Nearness of You” when a rumble of sound rolls from the bar like an alarmed wolfpack. The secondary motif is the click and scrape of furniture, followed by Axel, taking a sprawling dive onto the dance floor. The dancers scatter; the band stops.
The next performer is a stocky, bald man with a Fu Manchu, dressed in a plaid work shirt and blue jeans. He stumbles through the chairs and is about to deliver a kick to Axel’s ribs when Hoyt hits him with a flying tackle. The man lands on his back and is gasping for air when Axel regains his feet and delivers the rib-kick he was about to receive. Hoyt joins in, and the two of them conduct a thorough thrashing.
“Stop it! What the hell are you…”
Roger rushes over to grab Hoyt by the shoulders. In the effort to shake him off, the big man throws an elbow that catches Roger square in the mouth. Roger drops to all fours and coughs up blood.
“Oh shit!” says Hoyt. He waves to Axel and they scramble for the exit. The last David sees of them is two close-cropped bulletheads bobbing down the back stairs.
A half hour later, the lounge is a triage center, dancers and drinkers replaced by paramedics, police and hotel security. Roger sits in an easy chair, wearing a pained expression as he bites down on a towel. The bald guy is being strapped into a gurney. The cops are having a hard time getting the story; they’ve got one victim with two missing teeth, and another who can barely breathe for all the broken ribs. The best they can find is Tess, the Shilo’s most devoted barfly. She delivers her account in a voice like steel wool.
“I’ll tell you what started it. It was him!” She points at Billy. “Hugo was just asking what the big deal was, and those rednecks told him all about that baseball thing. Hugo laughs and says, ‘I remember that! What an asshole.’ Rednecks get all bent out of shape, they said, ‘He is not an asshole.’ Hugo says, ‘He was if he grabbed that ball.’ One of the rednecks says ‘Well maybe you’re the asshole.’ And that’s when all the shit went down. Roger, can you get me another whiskey?”
Roger’s eyes bug out in her direction. Billy studies the general devastation and starts for the back exit. His first outburst comes through the glass fairly clearly as “Shit!” The rest is a fugue of consonants, a firecracker string that fades as he descends the steps. David starts to follow, but Abbey stops him.
“Give him a few minutes. He doesn’t lose it very often, but when he does, he doesn’t like to talk to anyone until he calms down.”
“Smart man.”
“Here’s a little care package.”
She hands him a lighter and two cigarettes – one regular, one clove.
“You think of everything.”
She kisses him, which seems only natural, but heading out the exit he realizes it’s the first time she’s done it among their friends. He passes his smoking-ledge and peers in at Billy’s old hideout. Nothing. Fortunately, it’s a clear night with a three-quarter moon, so he hits the wooden path toward the beach. He comes out of the dunes to a sandy eternity: forever to the right, forever to the left, the breakers of the Pacific a mere idea. He flips a mental coin, heads to the right and lucks out: a barely discernible stick of a human, a football field away. He finds Billy with his back to the ocean, gazing at the moon, the hotels, the lights of town.
“You okay?”
“Your niece sent provisions.” He hands him the cigarette and lights them up.
“Well, that’s somethin’ at least.”
They stand and smoke for a long while. Billy finishes and tosses it away. David follows suit, watching the sparks scurry like fireflies.
“Thoughts? Wishes? Incantations?”
Billy takes a deep breath.
“Assholes interrupted Hoagy Carmichael.”
“Not to mention Sinatra.”
“What am I doing? I was all set to get my own ass whooped. Now I’ve got hooligan disciples. What the hell!”
David takes a moment to consider if Billy really wants a response. He decides that he has a point worth making.
“You think any of those losers needs help getting into a fight?”
Billy grapples with the logic.
“Yeah. You’re right. I just wish I wasn’t so weirdly important.”
“Well, that horse is out of the barn. You’re about to appear in a national magazine. As your softball coach, I suggest you toughen up.”
A laugh escapes Billy’s lips. “Sir yes sir.”
“You realize there is no way in hell I’m letting you leave your niece again. I’m going to have a child with that woman.”
David can feel Billy’s surprise.
“If that’s a diversionary tactic, you got a pretty fucked-up sense of humor.”
“More of a prediction than a promise. There’s something pretty inevitable about that woman.”
“Just do me a favor and get a divorce first.”
“Workin’ on it.”
“Well! You’re fulla news.”
David slaps him on the shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s walk. Fucking freezing out here.”
“As your right fielder, I recommend you toughen up.”
“Hugo was right – you are an asshole!”
“I have never denied it.”
Twenty feet on, their steps slapping on the wet sand, Billy says, “We’re done at the Shilo, ain’t we?”
David indulges in a sigh.
Oh yeah.”

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