he had some outward signs…the grey patch of hair, a bit odd for someone 17 years young and then there was that cold, still gaze he shot at you, those pupils hinting at infinity, unsettling. But what really scared Wendel’s parents was the book he carried around with him….slept with it, brought it to school, parked it beside his dinner plate. Mom asked him where he bought it and Wendel wasn’t the least bit shy. “got it brand new, for a dollar, at St. Hedwig’s annual book bazaar.”
Three months passed and that book was always with Wendel like a third arm or something. He grew his hair long and took to smoking cloves.
Wendel’s mom drank vodka before sunset and well into the night, lubricating her pose of “respecting secrecy.” She waited for Wendel to fall asleep, tiptoed around his room with a flashlight and found the book, on his bed, beside his body. She recognized the tan cover and hitter’s stance. She scooped it up, retraced her steps back outside and committed literary sin; she read the back of the book synopsis. It didn’t strike here as a banned book from some old, prude decade, no illicit sexual exploration or mocking of an ethnic group. The author was Donald Gropman and the book was about JOE JACKSON, the baseball player, not the singer.
Mom then did what she always did with books. She asked a random question and then thumbed to a page, a passage, for an answer. she closed her eyes and asked,
“what is my son’s dark side?” and then she ruffled through some pages, exaggerated a long inhale through her nostrils and exhaled out her mouth, ruffled some more pages, decided on one or it decided for her. She moved her finger up and down, and then stopped, opened her eyes….page 70, lower right hand corner. An entire paragraph highlighted in yellow.
“in the territory of the Southern League (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisianna, and Tenessee), the spring of 1910 was one of the coldest on record. Sea lions swam in the ship canal at Galveston, Texas, where they had never been seen before. And for the first time in its history, the Southern League had to call all its games one day because of the cold spell.”
she jotted each and every word down, returned the book to Wendel’s bed, and went to see her husband. the two discussed the grey patch of hair on their son’s head and his still glaze and now these words, these dangerous, highlighted words.
“Maybe we should have given him a different name,” wondered the father. “a catcher’s name, maybe Milt after Milt May.”
“Yes, a catcher,” replied the mother….”close to the ground, rooted, a survivor.”
“Not some half-crazed doomsday lunatic named Wendel,” continued the father, “this cold spell cancelling games in the southern league will no doubt be more than enough fodder to ruin our boy’s optimism. He’ll drink hair spray, push around a shopping cart and whisper about the ice age doom that awaits us.”
Mom and dad’s concerns proved to be legit. Wendel mounted a poster on his wall describing the earth’s previous six extinctions and the seventh one we are currently stuck in. He began to rip away his cuticle flesh, blood dripping on the kitchen table…the sight of which forced mom and dad to play their card.
They called the Revive the Ritual Crew and the RRC, as they were known around town, didn’t hesitate, the desperate fiends; they came in a blue truck, armed in space suits, knocked down Wendel’s bedroom door, wrapped him up in a straight jacket and carried him away, to the headquarters where there were housing units, wrought iron fire escapes, cars, buses, pollution and back alleys and there were also trees and rabbits. it was a place where the days were split up in abacus organizational detail – morning meditation, reciting prayers, observing birds, listening to bus brakes, counting stars, all of it designed to tune Wendel and the other prisoners into the miracle of existence.
Wendel tricked the authorities with fake smiles and in secret, plucked dandelions and a few months later, turned them into wine and got all of the prisoners drunk and well, shit, god damn, they had a baseball team too and so he served in thought and deed – he studied pitchers and learned how to hit to all fields and play his position, the one his parents recommended – catcher, shifting his feet like a hockey goalie, blocking balls with his body.
…and there came a day when Wendel was deemed appreciative of his surroundings and therefore, ready to be reintegrated into society and when he left, he removed the rituals like a scuba diver escaping the suit, naked, relieved, returning to land and a new thought hit him like a never before breeze; that it was all tangents – meditation, prayers, doomy thoughts, camaraderie at the bar rail, and with that in mind, Wendel hankered for Seattle Pilots baseball cards and he had other desires too….there were Asian players to collect and Mariners games to listen to and with his new belly (he ate well with the Revive the Ritual Crew) a possible spot on the local softball team, as a first baseman because he was ready to be hospitable, to converse with baserunners, to share a little wretch over what we all have to suffer.
July 12, 2022 at 9:39 am
Thanks for an entertaining, haunting, disturbing, hilarious and, best of all, gripping tale, Steve. I read and re-read it and re-read it again, because each read gave me an appreciation for the clever details.
I’m going to have a hard time shaking the imagery from my favorite passage, the one you gave the Joe Jackson book, about “sea lions swam in the ship canal at Galveston, Texas, where they had never been seen before.” It’s a crystal ball into the special hell our planet is lurching toward as the climate gets altered.
Speaking of special hells, Wendel’s mom reminds me a lot of Laura Palmer’s mom, Sarah Palmer, as played by Grace Zabriskie in “Twin Peaks.”
And how you managed to fit in references to Milt May and the Seattle Pilots and make it all so natural is quite a delight…..
July 12, 2022 at 5:14 pm
Thanks Mark. I’m really glad this resonated with you and that you read it more than once. Very humbling.
I found it interesting that the south was freezing back in the 1920’s considering that 100 years later it’s burning up, both sad situations.
I watched Twin Peaks or some of it, a long time ago. I bought the VHS series for my kid’s mom, yeh VHS, so it was a while ago, mid 1990’s? I’ll have to find it somewhere and watch it again. Thanks again Mark.
July 12, 2022 at 11:50 am
Just another reminder of why I continue to read your work. I echo retro’s comment about the piece being “entertaining, haunting, disturbing, hilarious and, best of all, gripping tale.”
I’m glad the book was about Joe Jackson the ballplayer and not the singer. It just wouldn’t have been the same if he’d highlighted Joe Jackson lyrics instead… “Is she really going out with him? Is she really gonna take him home tonight?”
Nope, it wouldn’t have been the same at all.
July 12, 2022 at 5:19 pm
I have a Joe Jackson hit forever stuck in my MTV memory mind. “Steppin’ Out” I think that’s what it’s called. I guess that was in the early 1980’s? I liked that song and loved that MTV station. I’ll have to look up and listen to the song you are referencing.
I’m glad that you enjoyed this post Double K. Thanks for the great comment.
July 12, 2022 at 6:14 pm
Just fantastic, Steve. A surreal, almost sci-fi, baseball story. When the Revive the Ritual Crew came for Wendel, I couldn’t help but think of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This is the kind of story that leaves me with loads of questions…which is fantastic. One of the best I’ve read from you.
July 13, 2022 at 6:59 am
Thanks Bob. Great to hear that you liked this one. I sometimes wonder what details of those dystopia novels like Fahrenheit 451 we are living in right now.
July 13, 2022 at 1:15 pm
Yikes. I don’t really like to think about that.
Again, a great story. Really enjoy this one.
July 13, 2022 at 4:45 pm
Thanks again Bob. I’d be lying if I said positive feedback doesn’t work wonders. Turns a bummer day into a better one.
July 16, 2022 at 1:46 pm
Thanks, Steve. This is fantastic. I appreciate how you can draw a reader in.
July 17, 2022 at 8:26 am
Thanks Precious. I’m glad this resonated with you. Onto the next one!
July 20, 2022 at 2:17 am
So I’m listening to Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out’ as I write this, and I remember liking that song as a kid, and it still kind of holds up. It’s driving, quirky, and kind of jazzy. I always enjoyed the little tinkle of the piano keys during the structure changes. His lyrics seemed urgent–even though I had no idea what the hell he was talking about at the time, but it seems to me like he and his old lady have been fighting a lot so they decide to get out of the house and maybe go dancing or something. They were just tired of doing the same old shit. And I can relate to that.
July 20, 2022 at 7:11 am
Hey Gary, I like the song too and I can relate to doing the same shit. Sometimes I think it would be beneficial to just walk to or home from work a different way; that it might activate a different part of my mind and get me feeling good. I find that it gets harder to try new things as we get older.