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Back from the cheesy waterfront tourist traps, Pablo and David stop next to the Alaskan Viaduct. The sides of the walkway are painted with the murals of schoolchildren, regional subjects like Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle. Pablo points out a native riding an Orca like a surfboard.
“That is hilarious.” His voice is hoarse from three straight days of talking.
“So,” says David. “How do you feel about taking out Pasco Fernandez?”
Pablo grins. “Kinda awesome, actually. Is that weird?”
“With Billy in the ICU?”
“Listen, pal. If it weren’t for you, Billy wouldn’t be in the ICU. I’d be scattering his ashes off Point Brown.”
David puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been meaning to tell you, that was the most freakishly courageous act I’ve ever seen. And I hope to God you never do something like that again.”
“I’m kinda thinkin’ I won’t.”
“And that slide. Brilliant! How’d you come up with that?”
“Not sure. I guess I figured it would be safer down there.”
The wind whips up, sending bits of paper against the chain link. David wraps his hand around the back of Pablo’s neck.
“So… that little Clint Eastwood speech. That seemed a little rehearsed.”
“Every night since that goddamn holdup. I gotta admit, turning the tables like that, that was powerful. But don’t worry. I won’t turn into a superhero or anything.”
“Not according to the local media.”
“I know. They really went on about that. I mean, the initial rush was great, but now I’m walkin’ around town, people are honking at me, waving at me, stopping to talk. I feel like I’m running for office!”
“The world is hungry for heroes, pal. But don’t worry, give it a month, things’ll calm down.”
Elena and Derek appear at the top of the stairs. Derek and Pablo head on, toward the hills of Seattle. Elena stops to catch her breath.
“Nice little neighborhood you’ve got here. Who knew Pioneer Square had a hotel?”
“Yeah. It’s been a nice little vacation, in a really weird sort of way.”
“Abbey handling your finals?”
“Yeah. It’s hard for her to leave Billy, but she also figured it would be nice for me to have a day with you guys.”
Elena takes a long, thoughtful blink.
“I hate to say it, but I’m beginning to like that woman.”
David smiles. “That’s what I was noticing – right before all hell broke loose. My two favorite women, laughing together.”
Elena tweaks his nose, an old gesture.
“Well, don’t think that we were talking about you. Egomaniac. Come on, let’s catch our children.”
A day later, David and Abbey walk downhill through the International District. In a courtyard between buildings, they discover a manmade waterfall, rushing over a pile of boulders, and sit down to watch.
“Oh God, David. All those tubes and monitors – it’s not really Billy in there. I feel like he’s gone off on another journey, and this time he might never come back. I know I’m supposed to be the tough, tragic woman, but I don’t want to lose another one.”
David massages her fingers, one by one. They watch the falls in silence. There’s something immortal about this moment. He knows that it will come back to him, years from now, in random flashes. He straddles the bench and wraps her in his arms, the better to whisper his intentions.
“Let’s give him an incentive.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“Have you noticed that Billy can be used as either a male or female name?”
“Billy Falter. Okay. You got it.”
David looks vaguely uphill. There you go, old man. The gauntlet has been thrown.
Two days later, they stand outside the glass wall of the ICU. Billy hasn’t improved; Billy hasn’t regressed. He’s holding them all hostage.
“Poor Joyce,” says Abbey.
“How long has she been in there?”
“Two hours. She just holds his hand and stares, like she can will him back to life.”
“Would you do that for me?”
“Yes. But don’t make me.”
“You got it.”
David wanders to a seat in the corner. He sees a sports section, picks it up, and returns to Abbey.
“I’ve got an idea. Do you think you can drag her away?”
“I’ll give it a shot.”
They’re walking the Avenue toward the brick broadsides of Safeco Field. On game days, the street morphs into a market, the curbsides lined with vendors. David buys a Mariners cap and places it on Joyce’s head. This brings a smile that is worth all the salmon in the Sound.
“What’s this for?”
“Billy couldn’t make it today. He designated me to be your date, and buy you stuff.”
“Won’t your girlfriend be jealous?”
Abbey laughs. “I’ll share – as long as you’re a good girl.”
Joyce looks down, working what little remains of her fingernails.
“I’m not a good girl. I wasn’t there. There was a show on TV and I had to watch it. What are we doing here? Why aren’t we with Billy?”
Abbey rubs a hand along her back.
“Okay, let the poet explain this. Do you believe that you and Billy have a mental connection?”
She giggles. “Sometimes I think our brain cells shuttle between us like little commuter planes.”
“Well, listen. We sort of feel the same way. I’ve got the blood connection. David’s got the musical connection. For whatever reason, Billy ended up a mile away from a major league stadium. We’re going to watch a game, and have as much fun as we can. Maybe Billy will pick up on that, and see just how much he has to live for.”
Joyce gives her a despairing look. “Do you really believe that?”
“I believe it’s worth a shot.”
She looks up the street, at the crowd of people massing toward the stadium.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
They latch on to a good game. The Mariners rally in the eighth to take a 4-3 lead on the Angels, then their closer loads the bases before striking out the last batter. They drink overpriced beers; they eat hot dogs with sauerkraut. They crack peanuts and leave the shells everywhere. They shoot up from their seats, give high-fives to strangers and, for a few moments, they entirely forget about Billy.
They’re migrating toward the hotel, just beginning to separate from the herd, when Abbey stops.
“What?” says David.
“I hear jazz.”
They find it at a kitschy Italian restaurant, where a freckle-faced veritable infant sits at the piano, playing New Orleans stride like Fats Waller. David waits until he finishes “Basin Street Blues,” then drops a five into his tip jar.
“You are awfully good.”
“Thanks. I’m studying classical at U-Dub. Please don’t tell my professors.”
“Your secret’s safe. Any chance you could accompany my girlfriend on something?”
“Oh. I don’t know. I’ve had some bad experiences.”
“You’ve heard of Billy Saddle?”
“Sure. That guy who got shot.”
“My girlfriend’s his niece.”
“Wow. Sorry ‘bout that. Okay. Bring her up.”
The song is “What’ll I Do?” Abbey’s delivery convinces him, more than ever, that she’s got Billy’s magical genes. Given the situation, she has chosen the most devastating possible song, but she manages to deliver the emotions without falling prey to them.
During the piano solo, she gives David a meaningful nod. He takes Joyce to an open piece of floor and they begin to waltz. Joyce closes her eyes, and he knows that she’s dancing with Billy.
The three of them stop at a railing near the ferry docks. The sun is teetering atop the Olympic Mountains. David slaps Abbey on the shoulder.
“You had a pretty decent shot at that foul ball.”
Abbey gives a prim smile. “We Saddles prefer to stay away from foul balls.”
Ella Fitzgerald begins to sing “Summertime.” It’s Abbey’s phone. She walks away, sharing a rather intense conversation. She returns with a face full of tears, gilded by the sunset. David’s having a hard time finding his breath.
She smiles. “He’s out of the ICU.”
Joyce and David descend on her.
The good news filters back to Ocean Shores, and Billy becomes Harborview’s most popular unconscious patient. The visitors include Charley Nations, Gerry Kolder, the Blaines, Derek and Jenny, Oscar, Isaiah, Parthenia – even Ralph the bartender, who shows them his new teeth.
Billy is listed as stable, his vitals rising like a bull market. His visiting hours become a sort of consciousness lottery. His wife, niece and bass player harbor secret jealousies, reluctant to cede the grand prize to a Johnny-come-lately.
Three nights along, David is seated at bedside, reading the most brilliant final thesis he has ever seen, Voltaire’s Enlightenment and the Genesis of American Democracy by Michael Butler. The words virtually sing from the page, so David plays along, whistling the sax line from “Take Five.” Beyond his reading glasses, he sees a faint motion, and realizes that Billy’s right index finger is twitching in 5/4.
David turns to Billy’s ear and sings the line on a series of da-da-das. When he reaches the bridge, the finger stops and the old eyes open, revealing a faint echo of those mesmerizing blues.
He manages a shadow of a smile.
“Hi Frankie. Did we win?”
“The softball game?”
Photo by MJV