Saturday, March 22, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Thirty-Nine: What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

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 Number Twelve: Edgar Allan Poe
At first, this hole seems unusually plain. The eerie master poet peers at his pocketwatch, a raven on his shoulder. The twist is revealed in Mr. Blaine’s blueprints. The design originally called for Niagara Falls, but also for a pendulum balanced directly over the cup. When still, the pendulum blocks the ball from its goal; when set into motion, it allows a brief window of time during which the player may make his attack.

David hears a siren and watches as an ambulance makes its way toward town. When he returns to his leg presses, he finds Abbey hovering over him, smiling.
“How do you do that?”
“The natural slyness of the poet. Are you in therapy?”
“By which you mean…?”
“School’s out, no jazz gig, nothing to do. So you lift weights.”
He performs two more presses.
“In my defense, I often lift weights when I have no worries whatsoever.”
“But today it’s therapy. Give me a kiss.”
She leans down very slowly and plants her lips on his.
“Now that’s therapy.”
“Temptress. How’s the old man?”
Abbey looks sideways to signal a sore subject.
“Not good at all. Miserable. He told me the toughest part of his autumn disappearance was giving up the band. Now he’s got the band, and nowhere to play. So ya wanna fool around?”
“Well!” says David. “I’m glad we wrapped up that subject.”
“It does Uncle Billy no harm if I screw his best friend. In fact…”
“Best friend? What about Frankie Minor?”
“Creep city. The whole time he was here, he was putting the moves on me. Thank God he’s gone. Besides, who’s done more for Billy than you?”
“To which I would say, who’s done more for me than Billy?”
She slips a leg over his body like a slo-mo ballerina. He does a couple of rigorous presses, which leaves her hanging on like a bronc buster. She collapses forward and gives him a kiss.
“Reciprocity,” she says. “The hallmark of any sound relationship.”
“So yes, I’d love to fool around. But I’ve got twenty final papers I absolutely have to finish. Could I come by around midnight?”
“You can do that?”
“I am the most unmarried of married men.”
Abbey smiles and stares at him in a way that demands a response.
“What are you looking at?”
“Never in a million years could I have predicted the insanity of the life that I am living.”
“Are you happy?”
That’s the insanity.”
She covers him with a tonguey smooch.
“I will screw you until you whimper like a little boy.”
“God, I hope so.”
She withdraws her leg like a slo-mo gymnast and makes for the door, maximizing her waggle.
“Bye, little boy.”
Abbey heads down the hall to the music of shifting weights. She looks toward the overhead lights and says, “Please let me keep this one.”

Even on Friday night, an 11:30 shower would seem suspicious, but David is leading an unwitnessed life. Derek is out with Jenny (David finds himself rerunning all their sex talks, hoping he’s covered all the bases). Pablo as always, is working. And Elena is in the living room, crying.
David stands in the hallway, a few steps from slipping out unnoticed. But he can’t. Too much history. He settles on an ottoman and touches Elena’s knee. Her eyes are bloodshot, her face worn with rubbing and wiping.
He hasn’t used the word for months – not for Elena. She calms for a second, but then she quivers into a fresh outburst. He perches on the arm of the recliner and rubs the back of her neck. This is her pain center; this usually helps. But he feels the weight of passing time, glances at the clock over the mantel. A minute later, she manages to eke out some words.
“Wife. Fat… like me. Lost weight, but… fat again. Doesn’t… need me.”
Well, thinks David. Who’s being superficial now? Can you punch a man for breaking up with your wife?
“I’m sorry,” he says. Five endless minutes later, she’s still crying. Every cell of his physical being is gravitating toward Abbey. He reviews the situation, reminds himself of the things to which his semi-wife is not entitled.
“Honey? I really have to go. Is there… Is there something I can get for you?”
Elena suffers a brief attack of hiccuping. When the words finally make their way through, they’re like sounds written in sand.
“Ice cream.”
David wants to laugh out loud. Elena’s real lover is a dairy-based dessert.
“Rocky Road?”
She nods. He gets up to go. She grabs his hand and gives it a kiss.
He leaves the house and stands outside in a low-lying fog. He considers joining the rest of the town in signing up with Parthenia. But now that his family’s second income is gone, he can’t afford Parthenia. Perhaps if he screws Abbey silly he’ll feel better. He feels a vibration in his pocket.
“Hi honey. Sorry. Little family thing.”
The answer comes in a cloying falsetto.
“Well you betta hully up, big boy, ‘cause me velly horny!”
Isaiah returns to his usual baritone. “I take it you were expecting someone else?”
“Jesus. What the hell do you want?”
“I want you to meet me at the Quinault lounge as soon as you can get here.”
“You have got to be…”
“Abbey’s coming, too. And Billy. Huge news, buddyboy! But I can’t tell you till you get here, so get here. Bye-eeh!”
And he’s gone. What was it that Abbey said about the insane life? David hops into his truck and cranks the defogger.

The fog at the Quinault is as thick as crystal pudding. David navigates the gentle S-curves across the canal and pulls into the parking lot, where an army of streetlamps etches perfect cones in the moist air. He steps through the entrance, cuts left to the lounge and finds Abbey speed-walking in his direction. She smacks into him and attempts a body-meld, erasing all his margins. When he comes up for air, he says “Yi!”
She gives him a pleased smile. “Nice stiffie you’ve got there. You plan on walking around with that thing?”
“Serves ‘em right. Cutting into my nookie. This had better be good.”
She takes his hand and leads him into the lounge. David slips his other hand into his pocket and makes a necessary adjustment. Billy is sitting next to the fireplace with some kind of tiny drink.
“Old man!”
“Middle-aged man!”
“What the hell have you got there?”
“The opposite of starboard is…”
“Want some?”
He waves to a native woman sitting at the long-closed espresso bar. She takes his order and is back with David’s port within thirty seconds. He takes a sip – it’s pungent, and sweet, and good – and watches as the woman returns to her post.
“Okay. So what’d you do, win a jackpot?”
“I think she’s the liquor fairy. Ever since I announced myself at the desk, I have been treated like a fucking sheik.”
David takes the armchair opposite. Abbey sits in his lap, which is doing nothing to ease his wardrobe malfunction.
“Really, you two. Get a room!”
David kisses Abbey on the neck and laughs. “You’re the sheik. Why don’t you get us a room?”
Isaiah’s booming laughter echoes in the hallway. He enters as the peak of an odd triangle, accompanied by the six-four Thomas Blaine and a five-five native with a close-trimmed beard and a perfect brown suit. The man makes a fast break and pumps Billy’s hand as if it might deliver oil.
“Billy Saddle!”
“Small world!” says Billy. “That’s my name, too!”
The short man delivers a lo-hi laugh that crinkles the corners of his eyes.
“Ha-haah! I am Charley Nations. And I take it this is David Falter, bass player and history teacher. But this woman in your lap. I was unaware that we were hosting a beauty pageant.”
Abbey giggles like a little girl.
“Oh Charley,” says Thomas. “You are a smoothie.”
“I am a banana smoothie.”
Isaiah cuts in. “I believe Mr. Nations would like to take us on a tour.”
“The basketball player is correct,” says Charley. “Please, follow me. Do you all like champagne?”
“Of course!” says Billy.
Charley stops to whisper to the liquor fairy, then continues down a long back hallway. Halfway along, it turns into a construction walkway, a tunnel of bare plywood and two-by-fours. They split a plastic sheet at the end and emerge into a cavernous, overlit room filled with toolbelted natives and cedar sawdust.
The focal point is a broad stage at the opposite corner. The wall behind the stage features three enormous portraits: an Orca, a bald eagle and a bear. The cedar walls at either side are spotted by gelatinous gray-green diamonds, growing in number as they near the carnivores. David squints and realizes that the diamonds are salmon. Charley spots his gaze and smiles.
“Those salmon are the creation of Ernest Jolly, a Chinook ceramicist, and I will tell you two amazing things about them. One: each of them is set into the wall, meaning some arduous and precise cutting on the part of our woodworkers. Two: there are 248 salmon on these walls, and every single one is based on a specific, individual fish. Ernest spent three months traveling to different villages and sketching their catches. It is a spectacular creation, a project perhaps only a madman would undertake. We call this Salmon Hall. And that’s the stage. Why don’t you try it out, Mr. Saddle?”
He says this in the tone of a salesman inviting a customer to try on a jacket. Billy climbs a set of steps and takes the stage, strolling to left and right exactly as if he’s performing a song.
“Nice. Real nice.”
“Glad you like it,” says Charley. “Now, please, everyone. I had them lay out a little snack for us.”
They adjourn to a handsome cedar table along the back wall, out of the way of the workers. Each setting includes a plate of food, a small dessert bowl and a champagne glass.
“This is what we call our Local Flavors menu. Smoked salmon, steamed mussels, fresh huckleberries and sparkling wine, all of them produced or harvested within a hundred miles of the casino. Okay, well – the wine is from Yakima.”
David takes a bite of salmon. “Man! So how far will you stretch the mystery, Mr. Nations? Are you going to give us the lowdown?”
“Yes – but please, everyone, sit. Thank you. Excellent. Now, as you may be aware, Isaiah has been lending his talents to special events here at the casino. And getting rave reviews.”
“Thank you,” says Isaiah.
“Last week he told me some fascinating stories about your lead singer. Apparently, his eagerness to procure a sports souvenir has knocked his life somewhat awry.”
Billy lets loose with his special high-pitched laugh.
“Ha! The way you put it, it doesn’t sound so bad.”
“And it seems that Mr. Saddle’s reappearance has caused a bit of a ruckus, as well. And that soon a story in Sports Illustrated will multiply that ruckus exponentially. I trust you will not be wearing a swimsuit.”
Abbey fights back a giggle.
“I am also informed that Mr. Saddle is a phenomenal artist, and since this opinion comes from Isaiah, I am inclined to believe it.”
He takes a moment to chew on a huckleberry.
“Mmm! I never tire of these. Now, let me tell you my side of this tale. I am told that this hall of ours is a one-in-a-million phenomenon: a construction project that will actually be completed three months ahead of schedule.”
“Wow!” says David.
“Yes. As bad as the economy has been, it is always much worse in the nations, and so our people have been eager to work. There is a catch, however. This ultra-punctuality does me no good. The task of booking performers requires much advance notice, and so I was resigned to wait until March to bring our creation to the public. Now, however, I have discovered a trio of diamonds in my own back yard. I would like the Billy Saddle Trio to play Salmon Hall, beginning on New Year’s Eve.”
Abbey, David and Billy sit in stunned silence. Billy turns to look at the stage.
Me, up there?”
“But what about the ruckus?”
Charley smiles. “Allow the Indian to use a cowboy analogy. That ruckus of yours is a wild bronco. But what contains danger also carries power. And I have just the forces to lasso that ruckus. Your most obvious problem is security. We’re a casino; security is part of the business. On the upside, I have the chance to plant photos of Salmon Hall in papers across the country, courtesy of the long-awaited baseball recluse. I will have earned my entire year’s salary on the first day of January! That is well worth the ruckus.
“I am prepared to offer you a year-long contract. Five thousand for the initial performance, three thousand for each Friday night after that. I asked your lawyer friend to review the contract before this meeting.”
Thomas’s official summary consists of a wink and a thumbs-up.
“To give you a further idea of what I’m offering you,” says Charley, “our other New Year’s performer, playing in the main auditorium, is Dwight Yoakam.”
“Yoakam!” says Billy. “I love that guy. David? What do you think?”
“I say get us a pen before Mr. Nations changes his mind!”
Billy stands and shakes Charley’s hand.
“Charley, you have rescued me from despondency.”
Charley flashes a PR man’s smile. “That was not my prime motivator, but I will take it as a happy by-product.”

Photo by MJV

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