FREE on Amazon Kindle, March 25-29.
Even after thirty years, the first day of softball practice carries an unmistakeable buzz. David spends the day filling his schedule with errands, but he still finds himself pulling into Nygaard Field a half-hour early. He pulls out a bucket of balls that have spent the winter next to the washing machine and settles near the right-field foul line, where he performs the same seven stretches he’s been doing since freshman year. He’s eyeing a scary-looking cloud over Point Brown when he spots Billy hiking the long dirt road to the field. David has five minutes to craft a greeting, but all he comes up with is “Well what the hell!”
Billy tosses his glove to the grass and reaches down to shake David’s hand.
“Same to you, pal.”
“You walk all the way here?”
“I walked all the way out to Point Damon and then here.”
“Wow! Is the old shack still there?”
“Absolutely wiped out.”
“I guess you can take that as a symbol.”
“Clean slate. I like that.”
Billy bends over and touches his toes.
“How was your honeymoon?”
He straightens up with a smile. “Lake Quinault. I suppose you’ve been there?”
“That lodge they got. Wow! You can just sit on that lawn looking over the lake and order drinks from the bar. And the trails, too. Were you here for that big storm, couple years back?”
“Here? I coulda headed for work in my canoe.”
“There’s this one grove where those high winds knocked over ‘bout half the trees. Just lyin’ around like the biggest pile o’ Lincoln logs you ever seen.”
“You’re sounding very Memphisian these days.”
Billy laughs. “Yeah. You get two Tennesseeans together, the hick factor multiplies.”
“As do the Tennesseans. Ready for some throwin’?”
“Hope I remember how.”
“Well you know what they say. It’s just like fuckin’ your fiancee.”
“You are so bad.”
They only get five players, but almost as many spectators. These days, Joyce can’t resist watching Billy do anything, and Abbey’s along to quiz her about the honeymoon. A little later, Thomas and Gillian show up with a rolling cooler. Thomas pulls out a beer and waves it at David. My God, thinks David. What have we done to deserve these people? Besides digging up his father’s statue of his mother.
Batting practice goes as expected, with one exception. Derek is hitting line drives, squaring up behind grounders like an infielder, and taking smooth, diagonal routes to fly balls. Perhaps, thinks David, the boy has found himself some mojo.
After a brisk hour, they adjourn to the bleachers for a Wrigley Field picnic. It turns out that the rolling cooler also contains deviled eggs, smoked oysters and Rainier cherries.
David laughs. “Would you two just draw up the papers and adopt me already?”
Thomas gives a sly smile. “Not sure if my three kids would want to share.”
“Hey,” says Pablo. “Is that Mom?”
It’s the mauve warmup suit, looking a little baggy. Elena power-walks across the green, waving as she reaches centerfield. Gillian greets her with a hug and a bottle of water.
“Hi,” says Elena, out of breath. “I thought I saw my favorite boys.”
“Hi Mom!” (For Pablo and Derek, the unison greeting is a longstanding joke.)
“Wiseacres. Hi Abbey.”
It’s a casual but remarkable greeting, and it brings a remarkable response. Abbey covers her mouth with her hand, spins away and sprints to her truck, then cranks the engine and speeds off, spitting gravel.
Leaving a bleacher full of people in a silence that threatens to suck the oxygen from the whole peninsula.
Gillian holds up a plate to Elena and says, “Snickerdoodle?”
It’s not in David’s nature to let his anger see the light of day, but this is one time that he wants to make use of it. If he’s going to survive this weird little threesome, he’s going to have to set things straight. He pulls into Abbey’s driveway at twilight. She’s sitting on the porch swings, sans cigarette. David’s almost afraid to get too close to her – their chemistry messes with his thought process – so he stands under the railing, like a D.A. addressing the judge.
“What the hell was that?! Do you understand the level of courage it took for my future ex-wife to cross that field, in front of all those people, in front of her kids, and to actually be cordial with the woman who’s taking her husband? This is serious, Abbey. I am not going to scatter my family over you, so you need to at least be civilized. I can’t believe you would just run off like that. I expected better of you.”
He stops and looks at her, but he’s not getting anything back. She’s just sitting there, looking vaguely annoyed, as if she’s just waiting him out.
“Nothing at all? Nothing to say?”
She shakes her head.
“Well, fuck. You know where to find me.”
Halfway across the lawn, he hears his name and stops.
She stands at the railing and speaks in a quiet voice.
“Please come back; please don’t yell.”
He comes to her, and tries to speak calmly, but his words retain a ragged edge.
“If you can’t handle this weirdness, if it’s too much for you, you need to let me know. Don’t fuck with me. I have other people I have to take care of. I would love for this to be all about you and me, but it’s too late for that and I…”
“Shut up!” Abbey slams her hand on the railing. “Shut up shut up shut up!”
Right, he thinks. That’s enough. He turns to go.
David has become one of Howard Blaine’s statues. He fixes on the horizon, houses jutting from the silver plain like teeth. A truck rounds the corner, sweeping its headlights across his face. He breathes.
The weather isn’t so good, but the ocean is behaving. He opens the urn and tosses a handful to the water.
“You mean you left the man half-scattered?”
David tosses some at Billy shoes. He quick-steps to the left. The shocked expression makes David laugh.
“Dirt. From the infield.”
“But… didn’t he play outfield?”
He reaches into his pocket and tosses a handful of grass clippings. They land on the water and drift off like little green boats.
Heading back, doing the rock-to-rock run, the two talk loudly over the surf.
“Do you miss him?”
“Mostly, I miss the laughs we would have had over this crazy year. Funny thing is, I don’t know if any of this would have happened if he hadn’t died.”
“Not sure I get you.”
David takes an awkward step and waves his arms to regain his balance.
“The trio had a singer; the team had a sparkplug. If Larry had not left those big old gaps in our social fabric, perhaps Billy the Rabbit would have stayed in his hidey-hole.”
“Larry was a good singer, nice tenor sound. I enjoyed listening to him.”
“Is that how you knew what to sing at his funeral?”
Billy pauses to catch his breath and look back at the end of the jetty.
“I could tell he felt the same way about that song that I did. Hey, if I should kick off, why don’t you scatter my ashes in the same spot?”
“Not gonna happen. You’re immortal.”
Billy laughs. “We’d all like to think so, wouldn’t we?”
“Did I mention you’re going to be a great uncle?”
Billy has to fight hard not to fall off his rock.
Opening night is a little unusual. The bleachers are packed, and a trio of photographers roam the sidelines. One of them is Jenny Felicetti, covering Derek’s usual beat for the Daily World.
Warming up along the right-field line, Pablo aims a cackling laugh at Billy.
“You’re a distraction! You’re taking away from the team’s focus.”
Billy smiles and tosses. “This team has a focus?”
Their opponents are the Mongrels, a new squad with young players. Although they pull the ball too much (a predictable leftover from hardball), they’ve got speed and defense. The game is back-and-forth all the way, and the wild card is Derek. In the second, he nails a liner to center to drive in two runs. In the third, he tracks a fly down the left-field line and makes a sliding catch. In the fourth, he strokes a ball into the right-center gap for a triple.
Things are setting up nicely for Derek to have his first great game. In the bottom of the seventh, Run Like Hell is down by a run, but they’ve loaded the bases with no outs. Pablo meets him in the on-deck circle.
“You’re swinging great. Just hit it to the outfield and we’ve got at least a tie.”
“By the way, your girlfriend is hot.”
Derek laughs and makes his way to the box, where he digs in with his back foot. The first pitch slides over the inside for a strike. No problem, he thinks. Not what I’m looking for. The next pitch is chest-high, right down the middle. The mechanics are just right: loose grip, squared for center, the step, the swing. What follows is hard to explain.
Derek misses 99.5 percent of the ball, dropping it into a pocket of dust in front of the plate. It lands with a dainty puff and sticks.
Is that fair? he thinks.
Eddie Shriver, who played catcher in high school, has no such quandary. He pounces, grabs the ball with his bare hand, trails a foot across the plate (out number one) and pegs a throw to Jay Palma at third (out number two). As the ball leaves Eddie’s hand, Derek stops thinking, starts running, but it’s much too late. There are mysterious forces at work, and the youngest Falter is on the sharp end of the shish-kebab. Jay, who played third base in high school, takes a crow-hop toward first and fires. Sam Stegemiller, who played first in sixth grade, plants a foot on the bag, fights off the enormity of the moment and hears a muffled pop as the ball strikes his glove. Some time later, the runner hits the bag and keeps going, arms pumping, down the right-field line and into the forest.
The field explodes with Mongrels, while David stands next to Jenny Felicetti. God bless her, she’s still clicking away.
“Jenny, could you tell Abbey to get my equipment?”
David starts running.
They discovered the old pier when Derek was five, and may have even once or twice caught a fish there. It was not much more than a spaghetti-strand with rails, but it took you to the center of a cove ringed with coastal pines. David comes to land’s end and slows, catching his breath. Dere’s at the far end, elbows planted on the railing, shoulders hunched. David stops a few feet away.
“Embarrassed. How the hell did I do that?”
“Ya got me.”
Derek turns. “Come on! Give me something.”
“I got nothin’ but cliches. Softball is a wild beast. The minute you think you’ve got it figured out, it bites you in the ass.”
“Weird. But not cliché.”
David leans on the adjacent rail and finds that he can see the lights of Hoquiam.
“Think about great authors. When bad things happen to them, they use it. That triple play – that’s great material! That’s one of the most magnificent failures I’ve ever seen.”
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“No! I’m serious. That was a great and fluky tragedy. Reminds me of the Grand Fool Double. And look at all the great stuff that your Uncle Billy is getting out of that one.”
He drops his head to the railing. “Oh! Cut my wrists right now.”
“On New Year’s Eve, Billy told us that if we fucked up, we should not just acknowledge the fuckup, we should embrace it. Sure enough, Isaiah fucked up royally, turned it into a joke, and they loved it. If you embrace the fuckup, it disappears. If you try to hide it, it lives on forever.”
“Well it’s a little late, isn’t it? I sorta ran away like a big ol’ pansy.”
“That’s all right. Right now the team probably feels like kicking your ass. But think about the newspaper! Billy’s first game was already a big deal, half the town was out there. Maybe they’d like a first-person sidebar on the Triple Play from Hell. And I’m pretty sure your girlfriend’s got photos.”
“Oh, God, I don’t know.”
David picks up a pinecone and pitches it into the drink.
“Listen. You hit a single, we win the game, everybody’s happy for a few weeks. But you write up the Triple Play from Hell? That story will live for years. It was truly, truly horrible.”
“Jesus! All right already. I’d rather go back to the field and get my ass kicked.”
David wraps a hand around the back of Derek’s neck and walks him down the pier.
Derek laughs. “Didn’t we catch some puny-ass fish here once?”
“I believe it was two puny-ass fishes.”
“No offense to Isaiah’s handiwork, but don’t we have a perfectly nice hotel room now?”
David accepts a strawberry margarita, Isaiah’s beverage du soir.
“My idea,” says Billy. “Things have been moving pretty fast lately. I kinda miss the ol’ camper. Thanks for coming with us, Namraq.”
Namraq grunts, maintaing his brick-wall posture. David has yet to hear the man put two words together.
“So David,” says Billy. “That piece your kid wrote – high-larious!”
“The Triple Play from Hell! You mean you haven’t seen it?”
“Too busy with finals.”
“Well, you lucked out. I liked it so much I stuck it in my wallet.”
David unfolds it and reads:
A wise man once said that baseball is like a wild beast. The minute you think you’ve got it figured out, it bites you in the ass.
But this was ridiculous.
Billy smiles. “You the wise man?”
“How’s my great nephew?”
“Still a couple weeks away from our first ultrasound.”
“Holy shit,” says Isaiah. “Elena’s pregnant?”
Billy and David share a laugh.
“No, no,” says David. “Abbey.”
“What? Huh? Beg pardon?”
“The divorce has been filed, and Abbey is having my child.”
“And Daddy’s rhyming,” says Billy.
Isaiah puts out both arms like he’s getting ready to do jazz hands.
“Congrats? Condolensces? God, fill a guy in, wouldja?”
“Sorry. It’s a little delicate.”
“Hey,” says Billy. “How’s the golf course coming?”
David’s grateful for the change of subject. “They’re pouring concrete this week! Planning for a Labor Day launch. They’re hoping to have the Billy Saddle Trio at the grand opening. Sound doable?”
“Of course,” says Billy. “Anything for family.”
“Omigod,” says Isaiah. “You two are going to be related… in some sort of way.”
A three-beat rap rattles the door.
“Uh-oh,” says Billy. “They found our hideout.”
Namraq opens the door to find an elderly black man, granted a retainer on his younger self by a round face and an easy smile. The voice is gravelly and rhythmic.
“Hi. Is Billy Saddle here?”
Billy slides from his seat and peers over Namraq’s shoulder.
“Jon? Jon! What the hell!”
David suspects another twist on the Billy Saddle rollercoaster. After a round of exultations and embraces, Jon climbs the steps and gives Isaiah a smile.
“I’m surprised you can even get in here.”
Billy urges him forward to the table.
“Boys, this is Jon. He’s an old pal from my Memphis days.”
Jon grins. “Before he started grabbing his balls in public. Ha! You know how long I’ve been holding on to that joke?”
“Pleased to meet you, Jon,” says Isaiah. “Like a strawberry margarita?”
“Well we ain’t out here for the ambience.”
“Then have at it!”
Billy leans at the end of the bar – the last available spot – and smiles.
“I can’t believe you came out here!”
“Had a gig in Seattle. I’m looking through the paper and I see ‘Billy Saddle Trio.’ Holy crap! So I hop in my rental car and here I am. You finally came out of hiding!”
“It was time.” Billy looks to his players. “Jonny here invented his own art form.”
“You know vocalese?”
“Sure,” says Isaiah. “That’s when you apply lyrics and vocals to famous jazz instrumentals. Wait a minute! Jon Hendricks? Lambert, Hendricks and Ross?”
“My favorite law firm,” says Jon.
“Holy shit! My dad has every record. I used to listen to them over and over. And once I finally figured out what it was you were doing, I couldn’t believe… what it was, you were doing.”
“I get that a lot,” says Jon. “Lotsa work, man. Sometimes I hated myself for dreaming it up. But when you find something the people respond to, you gotta ride it.”
“Boy, and that Ross!”
Jon laughs. “I get that a lot, too. It’s not fair that someone that good-looking should also be so talented.” He accepts a margarita from Isaiah. “Thanks. Hey! That’s good. So I hate to interrupt a fan when he’s saying nice things about me, but I know you guys have to head back pretty soon. Thing is, the cats at EMI told me if I ran into anything special, I should turn them on to it. I always knew how good Billy was – love to have that chick-melting tone for just a day. But his players never matched up; not till now. It’s not really a ‘chops’ thing. Lots of beboppers and fusion guys have twice the showiness, the virtuosity. But Billy’s style is old-school, tasty, and it requires touch. That’s what you two have: touch. Anyways, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have my producer give you a call.”
Billy’s face is like the screen of a television that’s just been unplugged.
“Really? I mean… really?”
“You guys need to record, man. And frankly, your little baseball adventure will go over quite well in the marketing department.”
Billy’s expression falls.
“Hey! Don’t go all basset hound on me. I wouldn’t hook you up if the music wasn’t good. But don’t look an angle in the mouth. Besides, you’ve earned it.”
David laughs. “I tell him that all the time.”
“But hey, just talk to the man. Don’t get all buggy until you see a contract. Meanwhile, we better get you back to your little fish-hall before the folks start to riot.”
“On one condition,” says Isaiah. “You do ‘Night in Tunisia’ with us.”
Jon lets out a wheezy laugh.
“You tryin’ to kill me?”
“We’ll play it slow.”
Jon thinks for a second, and then smiles.
“Don’t you dare play it slow.”
Billy laughs. “Same old Jon. Can’t resist a challenge. Namraq! Lead the way, please.”
Namraq grunts affably. They pile out of the camper like circus clowns.
Photo by MJV