David worries that Billy is pushing his luck, but Billy promises he will run at 80 percent. These plans go immediately to hell. The second baseman dives into the hole to knock down Billy’s grounder, and Billy has to pull a stiff-legged sprint to beat it out. He returns to the base with a chagrinned smile and turns down a courtesy runner. The test came early, and he passed.
Reunited with their sparkplug, Run Like Hell piles up eight runs in its first at-bat, and follows up with a 1-2-3 inning in the field. Given the luxury of a good start, the manager turns his thoughts to larger matters. At a time when he should be working on lesson plans and reading assignments, he spent the week researching the Grand Fool Double, and even tracked down a video of Billy’s old quartet. If that beardless face didn’t confirm his identity, the sound of that voice removed all doubt.
David is unfamiliar with the care and feeding of secrets. He has always led an open life. But now he’s conducting his first extramarital affair (sexless, but still an affair), and cradling a nugget of historical knowledge that approaches folklore. He has to do something with it. Doesn’t he? He heads for the bleachers, and his only safe harbor.
“Your team’s looking good.”
“It’s your uncle. He’s quite the catalyst.”
Abbey’s face freezes. David thinks it best to free her from further acting. He sits down and whispers, “Billy Saddle.”
“How’d you find out?”
“Damn! Betrayed by literature.”
“Yeah, yeah. Very cute.”
Abbey takes a long breath and surveys the immediate surroundings.
“My new husband and I are sitting in a cantina in Cabo San Lucas, when I look up and see Billy on the TV. I had the horrible feeling I would never see him again. Ten years later, I wake up in a hospital and there he is. I was certain I had gone to the other side.
“He was in a library in Seattle. He put my name into a search engine and got this awful news report. I didn’t play fair at all. I told him I needed him to stay. So we set up the phony homeless act. You haven’t told anyone?”
She chews on a nail. Oscar flies to left for out number three.
“Shit. Gotta go.”
“Don’t say anything,” she says. “Let me tell him.”
“Gents! Pizza’s on me.”
This is Pablo, standing on the dugout bench. David’s a little surprised, but a 4-for-4 with a home run will tend to make one forget one’s minimum wage. The drivers of Run Like Hell convoy directly west to Laney’s Pizza. Pablo is greeted by Art Laney himself, who races around the counter to lift him in a hug.
“The hero returns! It’s so good to see you. Is this the team?”
Pablo laughs. “Fat chance, old man! This is the family. We’ve got ten more coming, and they’re ravenous. We’re gonna bankrupt this joint.”
Laney grins. “For my favorite employee, I will gladly go out of business. You want to make it yourself?”
Laney gives Pablo’s soiled uniform the once-over. “Yes, but for God’s sake, wash your hands and wear an apron.”
“You think that’s bad,” says Pablo. “You should see how he makes doughnuts.” He horse-laughs and heads for the bathroom.
“An old joke,” says Laney. “I’ve never seen a kid so in love with pizza.”
David and Derek head for the back room, where they shove a couple of tables together. Laney brings four pitchers of beer. David watches from the head of the table as each player takes his first post-game quaff (one of the loveliest experiences in life) and lets out a sigh. Derek heads off to the arcade, and Abbey takes the opening to hold David’s hand under the table. He catches a glimpse of the closet where he found Pablo that night and refuses to let it penetrate.
Billy comes by and taps him on the shoulder. “Hey, coach. Join me for a smoke?”
David assumes it’s a ruse, but it’s not. Just out the back door, Billy lights up and hands him a clove cigarette.
“My niece bought that just in case you wanted one. That’s how she is. Let’s head out a little. I don’t necessarily want to share.”
The lot between Laney’s and the bank is enormous – Ocean Shores being ready at all times for Woodstockian invasions. The half-moon leaves a dull trail across the blacktop. Billy takes a drag and releases it skyward.
“I really fucked up, David. Don’t think I don’t curse myself fifty times a day for grabbing that goddamn ball. I’m a fan, I should know better. My punishment, however, has been… unconstitutional.”
“Cruel and unusual?”
Billy smiles. “I knew you’d get that. I sat in that house for months, the hatred of an entire city gathered at the windows like humidity. It was unbearable. I had to go.
“The way I did it… pure genius. Had a friend, Frankie Minor, owned a delivery pizza service. That man loved me so much… he took one of his own delivery cars, big triangular sign on top – came to the door wearing a Rasputin beard, fake glasses, holding the biggest warming case he could find. We switch clothes – the company jacket, the baseball cap – load up the pizza case with a few meager possessions, I get in the car and I drive west. Drove all night; felt like I was skipping bail. Tossed the pizza sign into a ditch, and I finally had to pull over at a rest stop outside of Amarillo. I woke up at noon, it was cold but sunny. Got out of my car and stretched like a natural man. I swear, three months of knots crackled free in my muscles. It felt like freedom. I will never take it for granted ever again.”
Billy stops talking for a long time. David knows better than to interject. He is a little bit in awe; he’s never known an actual historical figure.
“People have found me out before, and it was pretty simple: I moved on. Once you learn the disappearing trick, it gets easier. Problem is…”
Billy ducks his head, as if he is fighting his emotions. David has grown used to the buckskin exterior, the frontier hardness, and finds this unsettling. Billy pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Her name was Joyce. She was half-Japanese, half-Russian: dark, almond-shaped eyes with this tiny bit of Asian asymmetry that put me in some kind of… state. And thick, jet-black hair. We were engaged. Nobody knew. I’m glad of that. It was one thing that those fucking media vultures couldn’t tear away from me. I couldn’t even say goodbye to her, it was too risky.”
He looks up. His eyes are shining.
“This thing is toxic, David. Once it gets into the air, it’s like nuclear fallout. But I’ll tell you, I’m in love with another woman this time, and this time I’m not giving her up. And you’re in love with her, too, so I’m betting I can trust you. Besides, you’ve given me back my singing and my softball, so I guess I owe you the chance.”
Billy flips his cigarette to the asphalt. It lands with a burst of sparks.
“Am I right? Can I trust you?”
David extends a hand. Billy smiles and takes it.
“Good deal. Now, let’s see if our left fielder can make a goddamn pizza.”
Photo by MJV