There’s a self-conscious jukebox and it wants to be touched. It sits like an erect horse shoe frozen in time beside the home team’s dugout in a stadium inside Duke Wiggin’s mind.
I don’t bother saying a thing. I just listen. We’re inside a hospital cafeteria on the west side of Milwaukee. I’ve been listening to the Beatles’ white album and “Dear Prudence” still echoes in my mind. Duke says he once owned a cat, and a three car garage in the same neighborhood where Jimi Hendrix was born; Seattle, Washington. I buy him a coffee.
Maybe I make the mistake of projecting my interest in Hendrix onto Duke Wiggins, but a key is a key and doors do open. Duke knows all about Hendrix; about his Cherokee, Irish, African-American ancestry, about his intoxicated parents dueling to eventual divorce, about Jimi’s withdrawn state hiding away in a closet.
Duke tells me there’s only way into the stadium in his mind; through Concourse E, beside the Duwamish River. I later learn that the river dried up a long time ago with the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. But I don’t bother saying a thing. I just listen.
He removes a deck of playing cards from his coat pocket. He made them from a set of 1969 Seattle Pilots Topps cards. He never explains the rules, but does say having Don Minchner in your hand is a bicycle bell.
Duke says he works in the hospital library on the second floor. He also slips a healthy gulp of brandy in both our coffees. I’ve never met a drunk hospital librarian. I don’t bother saying a thing. I just listen.
A feeling of gratitude or get out of jail comes over me. Duke is the polar opposite of the lady ruling pavilion 5-the Family Birthing center (FBC.) She’s more high-strung than a Mama bear killing in the name of continuity; swatting any and all disturbances into oblivion.
Duke ignores me mentioning lady FBC. He has no children, but no time or interest to question crops and harvests and human quirks, control and fear. “I’m a state employee reeking of brandy and gin in the morning.” Duke smiles.
He tells me of his self-imposed exodus after his Seattle Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Brewers in the spring of 1970. I wonder if that’s why a Milwaukee hospital hired him? Keep him liquored up and inside a hospital and not outside reeking havoc on Brewer fans?
The Brewers robbed Seattle of the Pilots and Bud Selig spearheaded the heist; the same Selig serving as commissioner of baseball for the past decade. Maybe Milwaukee was looking ahead with one eye on the past; scared of someone seeking revenge. I keep this to myself.
Duke refuels our brandy coffees and laughs about the words on the wall where the Pilots once played. “Sicks Stadium!” he says “We knew what to expect!” “Ya know, it’s possible Jimi Hendrix attended a game in that inaugural and only season 1969. Yeh, it’s definitely possible.” I don’t bother saying a thing. I just listen.
“Uniforms weren’t made with back pockets for nothing,” Duke says. “A Redman pouch of chewing tobacco, a vile of cocaine, batting gloves, a notebook?” He winks at me.
“And the Mariners?” I ask. And with that, he puts down the styrofoam cup he’s been gripping and settles back into his chair. We begin talking to each other rather than Duke at me. As it turns out, Duke doesn’t work at the library, doesn’t even live in Milwaukee. But he is a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and the Seattle Pilots.
Duke is on a cross-country tour to visit baseball tombstones and later that day will take a city bus to St. Adalbert’s cemetery where Hall of Famer Al Simmons was buried. I’ve been duped by the Duke, but gladly tag along. We board bus 35 and find seats in the back.
“And about those Mariners?” I ask. We play ping-pong with names volleying back and forth old and new; Zisk to Perry, Phelps, Montero, Cano. The bus makes a routine stop at another hospital. Employees exit the bus. Employees enter the bus.
Duke and I don’t bother saying a thing. We just listen to what we both already know; the beginning and the end of work days. I can’t say for sure what Duke is thinking, but from the smile on his face, I gotta hunch he knows none of this isn’t real; that we’re all just visitors.