Amy Roma was in awe the way pedals opened in spring, the way birds built nests, ants hills, and bees hives. She greeted the sun every morning with a wave of her hands like a drunk Pentecostal. She stared at stars, learned the constellations, danced under the moon. Many stamped her as an itinerant preacher and then settled back in their brood.
Johnny Turin liked the Seattle Mariners, specifically the 1977 expansion squad because it marked the return of major league baseball to the Emerald City, after seven long seasons without. He liked the continuity of colors, the yellow and blue, the same colors the previous team in Seattle wore, the Pilots, who relocated to Milwaukee after just one season to become the Brewers, on account of the team going bankrupt, supposedly. It wasn’t that Johny Turin didn’t like flowers and cats and moon phases and pearls hanging from blades of grass; he just didn’t notice. He was too busy, gloating on behalf of Bob Stinson’s .360 OB% in 1977.
Amy Roma and Johny Turin met at a mutual friend’s funeral. Johnny knew he was a slave to his thoughts, but he knew they were medicine too, mellowing the sting of his dead best friend, that starting lineup of the 1977 Mariners serving him like a sweet lullaby.
“How’d you know him?” asked Amy Roma. It was the question you’d expect someone to ask at funeral, small talk, selfish in a sense, to make the one asking the question feel a little less alone. But Amy Roma wasn’t done. There were tall, stoic evergreens hanging over the hole where Henry Wobbler was being laid to rest. And there were squirrels playing their game of tag, racing around some other kind of tree and it was fall and so leaves were red and yellow and falling and swaying and it was intoxicating to Amy Roma.
“Let’s walk,” she said, almost insisted to Johnny Turin. He was thinking about Diego Segui’s 0-7 record in 1977 and dismal 5.69 ERA and yet he only allowed 108 hits in 110.2 innings, so he nodded and grunted “Uh huh” in confusion and followed her as if he were under some strange spell. They strolled and the damn life sprouts from death rule was in full effect with tall grasses growing wild and free above buried bodies and this tickled Amy Roma to wax on about cycles and photosynthesis and gravitational pull and eventually this gnawed at Johnny Turin’s mind, ruined his concentration, his pleasant obsession over the Mariners not losing 100 games in their inaugural season and three players on that team hitting over 20 home runs and to stop Amy Roma from gushing over skies and suns and planets, he recited their names…
“Dan Meyer, Ruppert Jones, Leroy Stanton” and then he said them in the opposite order, “Stanton, Jones, and Meyer” and when he was done with that he rattled off the names of a few pitchers, hoping to gain an edge over this Amy Roma, but she knew the names; she knew the Mariners of 1977 and 2022 too and wondered if they would make the playoffs and she also considered the assassination of John F. Kennedy and why, in 2006, had the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to “dwarf planet” status and what kind of bat and ball games were played in ancient Egypt and as always, she wondered out loud and this mention of Egypt had Johnny thinking about his dead friend Henry Wobbler and how he had walked to the Nature Reserve on that Sunday as he always did, but that day he didn’t take in the cranes and turkeys and cardinals. He climbed the tower to get a better view of Mount Ranier, took a deep breath and jumped to his death.
“So how did you know him?” asked Johnny.
And she told him about the volunteering where they met and then about Eugenio Suarez and all the homeruns he had hit that season, “and with so few RBI’s” and than about “Logan Gilbert’s slider” and Johnny had questions and so it went, back and forth, Johnny not realizing that he was slipping further and further from the 77 Mariners and into 2022.
Amy Roma led them under the wrought iron Cemetery awning, like some ancient chuppa, into the rest of the day and the Mariners were playing that night and the two went to the game, against the Texas Rangers and the Mariners won 10-9 in 11 innings and it seemed fitting to both Amy Roma and Johnny Turin that it would go extra innings because they had a lot more to talk about and there was another game the next night too…
She was wearing a dark blue, ankle length dress. I figured she was part of some religious cult. I’m always a sucker for that type of species and the hope they engender, the challenge of it all, to sway her away from Jesus miracles into 24 hour donut shops and anywhere talk which is probably where Jesus would hang out if he were still alive, amongst the prostitutes, drunks, transvestites and the rest of us with no interest in sleeping, desperate to the endless possibility of connecting with humans. Do you wanna dance? Here. Right now!
Anyway, I’d been watching her for weeks, on the bus. She was always on it when I boarded. I didn’t bother thinking about destiny. I wasn’t looking to marry her. A conversation would do me just fine and then a coffee and a long stroll and smuggle a flask of Smirnoff into Estabrook Park and maybe we’d hold hands and kiss and exchange phone numbers, but the game was to collect more and more phone numbers and kisses. How many billions of people are there in this god damn world! Liechtenstein! Namibia! Pangea!
She had one of those old school trapper keepers which struck me as kind of strange because she was way older than high school. I had been being brave and sneaking looks at her as the bus rolled along and she’d smiled at me a couple of times. It was a nice, innocent little game we were playing, but the boxscore in my mind was incomplete; I wanted to know more about this developing trapper keeper situation. I hadn’t seen one in years. But I knew it was a trapper. I remembered those organizers and the Rick Springfield photos girly girlies slipped under the plastic so they could day dream about the mullet pop star model.
So, one morning I inched my way closer to the lady whose name I didn’t know.
“Is that a trapper keeper?” I asked with daring flair.
“I guess you’re old,” she replied.
I could barely hear her sarcasm. I was too interested in the photo she had slipped under the trapper keeper plastic front. I immediately knew the face. It was part Woody Allen, part Joan of Arc. It was Ty Cobb. It was unmistakable, that pear-shaped face and I felt a rush of empathy for Ty Cobb, a flash, a belief in my gut, that Cobb wasn’t ALL bad and neither was Genghis Khan or anyone for that matter and then I spotted a tattoo on the lady’s arm and I could feel her eyes looking at my eyes and I don’t know why but I started thinking about old baseball stadiums I knew, the names anyway, like Crosley and Forbes and so I told her what I was thinking and she didn’t know the stadium names or much about baseball; she just liked Ty Cobb’s face so I guess we had that in common because I like Ty Cobb’s face too.
I knew him as Pie and didn’t care too much about his real name because his family name was Kepinger and that reminded me of Kessinger, not Kissinger, the political guy, but Kessinger, – Don Kessinger, the White Sox player-manager in 1979 and where did player-managers go and what happened to the word hankering? I miss my grandfather.
Pie stood on third base looking like a virgin at 13th and Walnut – lost. He said he was guarding the line, “to prevent a double.” It wasn’t very convincing because Pie was facing the pitcher, not the batter and standing straight up looking at the sky, not really ready for a sharply hit ground ball.
I liked Pie. When everyone else dressed as an axe murderer or a skeleton for Halloween, Pie wore a brown monk’s robe, learned a few prayers and said them after receiving a Three Musketeers bar, but not for any other candy, only the Three Musketeers and we never knew why and this pissed off a lot of people, but not me.
I had heard of some empathy trick that if you collect a strand of someone’s clothing, from a shirt, pants, or socks and place the strand in a drawer with a pair of eyeglasses, you could reach Maximum Empathy Realization or MER as the psycho-scientists liked to call it.
And so I sat beside Pie in the dugout and put my arm on his shoulder and better than a strand of clothing, I got a strand of his hair and I bought pair of reading glasses at Fitzgerald’s Pharmacy and set the items in a drawer and as sure as a ghost, the next day I shrunk, as small as a blade of grass and slipped into Pie’s ear. But I didn’t stay small for long because there was room inside Pie’s mind. It looked like miles and miles of virgin forest and I figured that’s what experts were hinting at when they said we only use a small percentage of our brain. I was suddenly seated on a park bench inside Pie’s mind watching his thoughts fly by like the ticker tape trailing behind a small plane with messages – “should i pick up dirt and rub it in my hands? should I carefully drop three small stones on the base I’m standing on in some prehistoric superstitious ritual to turn the tide? Should I have not washed my game jersey? Should I scratch my crotch? Should I lean over, glove on the ground, flip my shades down, talk to the pitcher? Say something enthusiastic? Insult the batter?
It looked and sounded painful for Pie, the anxiety lullaby roaring on…
I eventually stood up from the park bench and exited where I had entered – Pie’s left ear and asked him why he was on the team and he said it had always been this way when it came to baseball and it all started with his father. Bastard never took Pie to a game and they lived walking distance from old Tiger Stadium so he missed the 35-5 start in 1984 and he never got to see Milt Wilcox labor or the batting stance of Johnny Grubb.
“We never played catch. He never bought me a pack of cards. He stuck me on this team. Dad likes it when I’m uncomfortable, out of my element,” admitted Pie.
A sick joke I thought, a cruel father, and that’s what made it such a miracle when exactly 90 days before Halloween, Pie crowded the plate and waved his bat like Carney Lansford, so eager, ready for the day like a rooster and Pie bunted down the third base line and it was a beauty, trickling along and stopping still and silent on the chalk. Pie stood and stared at the ball and when we all screamed for him to “go go go,” he looked at me and rolled his fingers towards himself, a sign for me to follow him so I did, along the left field foul line, all the way to the fence and over the fence and up the small hill to the railroad tracks, angling in both directions and all Pie said to me was “a martian made me do it” and I thought about that strand of his hair and the eye glasses and the bunt and the martian and nothing really mattered anymore. It all felt like some strange riddle that could never be solved.
Seeing Pie disappear over those tracks and down the hill hit me in the gut. Time was running out. School was starting in three weeks and I had to do it. I had been thinking about it for years, hankering for it, and the three weeks passed slow, but that first day of school arrived and I did it – I signed up for band and started learning how to play the tuba and with every sound I managed to make, I thought, we’ll see where this all goes….
i heard you’re into restoring victorian vases now and you wear sexy, great shoes and diamond earrings and your hair is the perfect color, some amazing mix of your natural beauty and synthetic crayola oils and curls at the end, perfect to stare at and twirl and i respect all that like i worshipped you a few decades ago and wondered where you got that necklace and your dark eyes and i know some work in diamond mines and others wear diamonds and i know i’m the one who has to work in the mines, but if i could go back, i would have softly held your hand and walked us over the tracks to the trestle and the unpredictable river where old philosophers had determined the same – unpredictable and we’d walk on and i would feel from your softness that you agreed and we’d finally smooch inside a giant, colorful cement tube on the kid’s playground where probably preschoolers did naughty things like we would do and the stars would agree and all of these trespasses from the simple touch of our hands, we’d sneak port wine into the cemetery and drink and I would proudly feel responsible for luring you into becoming the best damned viper in the world and we’d eat breakfast at Sal’s Diner, 1.99 for two eggs, toast, bacon and all the coffee we could drink and god, would we drink lots of coffee, us the kshhhh kshhhh of a needle that refuses to let go of the LP and you’d balance the sugar tower on sugar grains and i’d read the sports page, studying the boxscores and Joey Wiemer’s yesterday 0 for 3, but I’m sure he ran down a few fly balls and I’d totally forget about you and you’d kiss me on the lips and hug me because of my sudden absence and then I’d punch you on the shoulder for interrupting my brewers baseball reverie and we’d still both be feeling the previous night’s cemetery port wine high and it would be time to go to work and we’d send each other on our own ways, onto our own dance floors, spreading our own kind of love and maybe sneak some kisses with strangers and then we’d meet by the tracks after work and do it all over again come sundown whisky this time and sunrise back at the diner and sun would set and sun would rise and I’d know Viperette, as I would start calling you was bringing a little flamenco into the world, into me too…
It was the smell of pickles because nothing in the world smells quite like pickles or come to think of it, they weren’t yet pickles; they were in the beginning stages; they were only cucumbers, but well on their way, in the canning process which was something I knew nothing about as a 13-year old, but I had a hunch a jar musta leaked because the place reeked like vinegar. That’s what it was. Yes, vinegar. We were at Damien Murphy’s house or not his house, his parent’s house or pa-rental’s house as we called our moms and dads back then, pa-rentals, us the stowaway borders enjoying free food and rent.
Damien’s parents were out of town and they left his older brother in charge. Some charge. Benji bought us a case of fat mouth Mickey’s malt beer, the bottles like little glass grenades. I don’t’ remember the proof of the alcohol, but we didn’t need to know. We had all the proof we needed in knowing that we were on the slow journey towards a drunken attitude adjustment.
Benji left the beer beside the milk chute in the backyard, in some bushes out of sight from the Krosnoski neighbors. They were volunteers at the Zoo and liked to stick their nose where it didn’t belong. The beer being hidden added to the contraband feel of the night. We smuggled the beer and ourselves into the Murphy’s three story home. The back porch had four pillars which was very significant. It was the only house on the block with four pillars! We tiptoed in the dark, down the steps, into the basement. It added to the thrill.
Damian’s mother had the pickle jars in a back room in the same basement we were drinking in. There were 6 or 7 of us, four boys and a couple of girls. I remember Suzie Garcia more than anyone, remember her like it was yesterday because of that vinegar smell that filled that room. It’s stayed with me. What a crazy, wild, powerful sense is smell! One whiff of vinegar and I can see her again, that wacky Suzie Garcia. She had medium-length curly black hair and didn’t have big breasts or anything that would make us teens drool. It was the way she walked, on her toes, a hippity hop step and the way she ignored people, me included if she got bored by the conversation. I had never kissed a girl before. Fast forward 40 years and me, in drunken desperation, I try to track her down on facebook and I’m a hypocrite because I have no facebook account but I browse for old high school mates like Suzie Garcia in the hope she might digitally display her life through endless photos, but come to think if it, I’m glad I don’t find her. I wouldn’t want to find out that she had a husband, two kids, a dog, and a big house and was happy, because the Suzie I met that vinegar night was not happy; she was wonderfully distant and independent and seeing her happy would ruin the statue I’ve built of Suzie, the muse she’s become.
Suzie talked a lot about the Brewers which was an instant turn on. I had never been to a game with a girl, only one movie with Sarah Mankowitz, at the Bay Theatre, a James Bond flick, Never Say Never Again, a big mistake because of all that Bond macho shit…..left me no chance to score, not even a kiss. But now there was Suzie and she knew more than Yount and Molitor and Cooper. She did some heavy obscure name dropping like Thad Bosley and Dwight Bernard and with every name rolling off her tongue, I wondered how I would kiss her. All of us drank the beer and then we headed outside into a midwestern humid, swimming through apple sauce summer night. I still love that kind of weather.
If a genie came to me now….and offered me one magic wish, I’d slip into a time machine and return to that walk we all took, drunk on Mickey’s Malt and I would hijack Suzie Garcia and we would walk to the local yard and hop a train heading west and we’d sing and drink more beer and sleep in those boxcars and be brave like only teenagers can be. We’d catch squirrels and rabbits or Suzie would catch them with traps she’d make with her bare hands, a skill passed on by her hunter father and I’d have a bottle of Tabasco sauce that could turn any marsupial into a delicacy. We would talk and really get to know each other and she would sometimes ignore me and that wouldn’t bother me in the least because I would have my own private space too and best of all we would make it all the way to Colorado and Denver and only then would we realize that freaking 40 years had passed and that Denver had a baseball team and they were the Rockies and they were scheduled to play our very Brewers that night and that night would be tonight!
The Brewers lost last night 3-2. I didn’t’ see the game. I was asleep but I see that Freddie Peralta struck out 10 batters which almost matched the first outing of his pro career which was also in Colorado. He struck out 13 that night. Baseball has all kinds of these wonderful connections, enough to distract a human mind for an entire lifetime not to mention inspiring endless conversations with fellow baseball junkies like that golden Suzie Garcia.
And Suzie and I would go to batting practice tonight and we’d catcall Joey Wiemer and he’d walk over and sign our program. Joey went 0 for 3 last night, sending his average closer to Mendoza at .218, but he’ll keep getting penciled into the lineup and not only because Garrett Mitchell is done for the season, but because Joey takes incredible routes to balls and is fast and has a tremendous arm and I call him the Wiemer Schnitzel! Am I repeating myself? That’s what Suzie would say and then turn away and jot notes in the scorecard. I would never know entirely what she was thinking and I would love it that way.
The grocery store I typically shop at is part of a chain of stores with the same name – Metro. It has been under renovation. I was curious why. A decision handed down from headquarters? Or one made by the specific branch? Was it like city-states? Could they do what they wanted without consulting the leaders of their respective empires? Ancient history is not my specialty so I turned my attention to mlb websites, if a team, for example, could design their own site and not follow the same format as all other teams. This is what I was thinking while roaming the new layout at the grocery store, not a great idea, because the potatoes were no longer beside the fish display. I needed to focus. It was like shopping in a where’s Waldo adventure.
I eventually found the potatoes and en route, noticed something I hadn’t seen before and I had no one to blame but myself. I hadn’t combed the store studying all it had to offer and so I had never seen the freezer filled with frozen vegetables which didn’t bother me at all because I don’t like frozen vegetables, but there was something beside them that inspired questions. There were packages of Buffalo Wings. I’m not one for philosophy, but I admire the way philosophy is written – wordy and confusing which I take personally as a reminder that I lack the brain power to understand what the hell people like Spinoza and other philosophers are talking about, but in this instance, of seeing Buffalo Wings, I had to ask the question – why? The latent philosopher in me had been aroused. Why are they called Buffalo Wings? Buffalo don’t have wings. Buffalo don’t fly. I know this because I’ve seen buffalo roaming. It was a few years ago. I saw them at a park within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
I was in the Bay Area visiting my older brother. (He has been living in Oakland for almost 40 years) While I was there, I decided to ride the local subway called BART which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. I wanted to visit the old hippy scene at Haight and Asbury so I mapped out my subway and bus and walking route from Oakland to San Francisco and made it to the hippy zone and there were some old hippies there and they told me that the real hippy scene was buried in Golden Gate Park in 1966 and that was news to me and all in all, it was a great cultural experience and eventually I made my way to that park, to Golden Gate Park and walked and walked and walked some more which is how I stumbled on these buffalo. It was a great and surprising discovery.
It was exciting to see a park dedicated to these buffalo. I had read a little bit about them, not much, but a little, about how important they were to Plains Indian’s culture and how the white settlers knew that if they destroyed the buffalo, they would succeed in destroying their culture, maybe like the Nazis burning the Jew’s Torah/old testament. Get rid of the buffalo, get rid of the Torah and the cultures would eventually disintegrate which reminds me of something I recently learned about – eugenics and the search of the so called perfect gene which makes no sense to me in that I believe in spices, in so many different kinds of spices, in all kinds of Indians, in all kinds of Jews, in blue-eyed people, brown-eyed, tall, small, men with pockmarks on their faces, midgets, monsters, cultures or religions that believe in god and heaven and other that don’t, girls who wear flowers in their hair and say hello to strangers and men who drive around in hearses with megaphones attached to the top preaching destruction and doom. Spices spices spices. Anyway, all this to say that the buffalo in Golden Gate Park did not have wings and did not fly.
I asked my girlfriend about this name – buffalo wings; I asked her why since they were just chicken wings and she didn’t answer; she was busy deciding on whether or not to buy ice cream which she didn’t buy, instead choosing to buy a second bag of oranges, a strange replacement for ice cream, but I didn’t bother asking her why, preferring to not know which got me excited to head outside and discover new things which is exactly what happened when my girlfriend asked me to help her remove windows so she could clean them, front and back, something new, something I never do at my apartment. I was happy to help her. And the air was great….winter ending and seasons changing and yet, it’s almost impossible to notice, to really notice, a bulb on a branch exploding into a green leaf like when does that exact moment happen? It’s like noticing our mood swings. It’ all so gradual or subtle, but then it’s there or there we are in a new place and this inspires memories of Greg Maddux and what he did when he was pitching for the Braves, how he would impose amnesia on himself after allowing a home run, to forget about the previous matter, the previous batter, to move onto the next one, to forget, to believe that he might make the right pitch to the next batter. It was all just hope and blind faith. I mean there was a chance that the law of averages would not return and Maddux would throw one gopher pitch after another, but he didn’t.
The Brewers Corbin Burnes applied a similar self-imposed amnesia on himself too, a few weeks ago. After suffering two bad starts to begin the season, uncharacteristically walking five batters in nine innings, allowing two homers, 11 hits, 10 earned runs, he said something to the effect of “not focusing on the negative of what’s already passed, to not go that route” and he’s been good, if not great ever since saying that, back to his Cy Young self, but this isn’t to say that it’s that easy, like some magic incantation, that tomorrow will be horror-free if you forget about yesterday’s terror.
Steve Blass serves as a potent reminder that it sometimes doesn’t work. There’s even a syndrome named after him, the sudden attack of “Holy crap, I can no longe throw strikes” and the damn lack of control never went away, derailed his good career, even after hypnosis, psychiatrists and god knows what else, but Blass went on to have a nice broadcasting stint with the Pirates. He endured the horrible changes that confronted him, “the syndrome” and carved a new path and the suddenness of Blass’s lack of control kind of reminds me of the sudden renovations at the grocery store, at first shocking and unsettling, but then, slowly, I had no choice, but to adjust because some things are too big to try and resist and when I stopped resisting, I noticed the buffalo wings and after writing about them here, I might spice my life up and try some.
I can see it now – couch, buffalo wings, beer, and Corbin Burnes.
The Brewers are 18-9, one and half games behind the 20-8 Pirates who are the surprise of the year so far and apparently in a state of amnesia over last year’s 62-100 season…..Make notice to self for possible epitaph – “forever trying to forget about yesterday’s triumph or turmoil. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.”
The man sitting inside the tobacco kiosk seldom smiled. The kiosk offered just enough room to swivel around and pluck whatever his customers asked for”…..cigars, cigarettes, kodiak tins, cloves, tiparillos. He had no hair. He always spoke baritone, “what can I get for you?” …..pleasant enough to not creep out parents who were eager to report him because of the pockmarks on his face and the way he stared at their 16-year old boys and girls. But he wasn’t doing anything forbidden. The legal smoking age in Saddick County was 14 on account of there being so many “back rooms” where those aware of the monster within gathered and gambled and smoked…..There was no Little League or Boy Scouts in town so kids played poker. Kids smoked. And with mortgage payments and the drudge of 9-5 at the Yield Plastics Plant, parents started smoking too.
This man was the only tobacco dealer in town, an occupation handed down for generations, the Turnicut tobacco family. He, like his grandmother and great grandfather and so on backwards to the launch of the very first plantation, devoted their entire life to tobacco, dealing out the delights to eager teenagers, ladies with lipstick, and slow walking elders with wide lapel suit jackets.
On a sign outside the kiosk, right under a sharpy doodle of a cigar, in small cursive writing, it said – “we sell confectionary too.” I had no idea what the word meant. I was there for the Ducado filter-less imports from Spain, but I liked that word confectionary. It had me playing word division and association. Got me thinking about confession and defection and that reminded me of the Spanish Catholic church and the colonization of Cuba and the defection of Cuban born players and that had me wondering if Luis Tiant defected, but my wonder didn’t last long. I closed my eyes and slipped into a little reverie of Tiant corkscrewing 180 degree around wind ups. I had only seen Tiant on old videos, but that motion stuck with me. I impersonated him outside the kiosk. I was never sure if the tobacco man knew who I was impersonating?
And then he said the words to me one day.
“Make yourself a solstitial personality.”
And when I shrugged my shoulders, he added in a whisper, “one day it might be Hendrix and the next day the Koran.”
I knew about Hendrix and had heard about the Koran, about the inner war of Jihad, that fight against one’s animal nature, but I liked birds, especially hawks, the way they soared so effortlessly, hardly ever flapping their wings. I wanted to be like them so I had no interest in fighting with my animal nature. I wanted to arouse it even more and then one day I might fly or wrestle a buffalo to the ground with my naked hands and kill it peacefully and say thank you and then cook it up at a campfire of my own making for my brothers, if I only had brothers, if I only knew how to make a fire.
And these thoughts of fire reminded me of Hendrix playing the electric guitar with his teeth and also a Muslim Sufi spinning dervish dance and I felt confused, but it struck a cord with me like the humble, hardworking strategy of a suicide squeeze and the arrogant pompous homerun trot, both of them sharing the same planet and that’s when the tobacco man’s words started to make a grain of sand sense to me, two solstices, to make myself a solstitial personality. To sense the incoming storm and know when to adjust the sails and change, adapt, and what not.
The Brewers, like all teams have suffered early season injuries. Centerfielder Garrett Mitchell went down with what they’re saying is a season ending shoulder injury/surgery. And this means the Brewers have to adjust. They have to activate a new solstice or maybe I’m stretching this metaphor too far? Or maybe it doesn’t work at all? In any case, Mitchell’s injury gives my favorite Brewer a great opportunity. It’s Joey Wiemer – 6’4″, 220 big with a mammoth, wild swing and yet totally under control, able to lay off sliders low and away and also freak in the field…super fast and takes great routes to balls and a missile for an arm in right field and now center field since Mitchell went down.
And what does all this have to do with tobacco man? Nothing except that I just got back from Milwaukee. I was visiting my mom and dad and my dad gave me a cigar.
He held the bat low and knew where to aim – down the lines, in the alleys, to the open spaces where there was only dirt or grass. There was no point in shading him right or left because Hans Van Drummer could hit to all fields, his hitting spray chart an everywhere dot of Jackson Pollocks. He musta weighed close to 250 pounds and he wasn’t that tall. Had arthritis in his back and hands, a slouch with pock marks on his face and burn marks up and down his left arm.
I heard about Van Drummer from my younger sister. She knew about him from her boyfriend’s older brother Reuben. It was kind of hard to not wonder about Van Drummer. My sister said Reuben told her that Van Drummer was small and fat, aloof and prone to stare at the bleachers like a horse does into a valley. She said it so fast, with so much gusto and enthusiasm, like she worshipped Reuben or Van Drummer, maybe both! I liked her idolatry, the believing in something outside her self.
I wanted to meet Reuben, thought maybe we could become drinking buddies and talk late into the night about skyscrapers, baseball cards, the apocalypse, and whatever else came to our drunken minds, so I followed my sister to her boyfriend’s house, to Reuben’s house and he was there, in the TV room, eating popcorn and watching Mr. Magoo. I introduced myself, made small talk, asked him if Mr. Magoo was his favorite cartoon and told him Road Runner was mine. He didn’t say a word, but my sister had the key, had the words to unlock Reuben.
“Hans Van Drummer,” she said and that’s all she needed to say. Reuben turned away from the TV, stood up, and skipped all “hey, how you doing, what’s your name?” formalities.
“When the Monticules play at home on Saturday afternoons I sleep outside Pill and Puff stadium on Friday nights,” he explained, “to get a close up look at Van Drummer when he arrives in the morning, at the way he steps out of his car and walks through the parking lot and stops to tie his shoes at the exact same spot every time, section F6, just like a ‘one flap down’ home run trot ritual and the way he leans, that arthritic back of his and that smile as if he’s saying, “no matter what’s bestowed me, I’ll live out my days.””
Reuben ran his fingers through long golden strands of hair, no curls at all, horse mane straight.
Reuben told me about vintage cars and port wine. I told him I hated cars and only drank whisky. Our differences were fuel to a fire. Reminded me of a time before inter-league play, back when the National league felt like a foreign country with its pitchers batting, the two leagues happy and content in their difference, like ancient Basque boatmen touching the Gaspe peninsula, trading a few items with the locals (the all-star game and World Series) and then turning around and going home, no need for colonization because there was nothing they lacked. The DH was fine. You have your pitchers batting, we have our motor city boppers, a peaceful solution to civil wars, bats replacing bayonets.
Reuben believed in the torch being passed from older to younger brother, showing the next generation how to deseed a bag of weed and buying Mickey’s fat mouth malt beer igniting an underage Friday night and my sister stood to benefit from all this generosity because she was the Reuben’s younger brother’s lover, enough of a reason for me to like, to trust Reuben.
I knew the way Strat-o-matic baseball fans went to Glen Head, New York, and camped out the night before that year’s cards were issued and now there was Reuben’s ritual pilgrimage to Pill and Puff Stadium and well, I wanted to go and see this Van Drummer. I didn’t even need to ask. I think Reuben knew that me hanging in there, listening to his enthusiasm, my 12 pitch at-bat; he knew I was on board.
That Friday afternoon, we walked, sleeping bags strapped to our backpacks; we walked amongst tall grasses, out to the road, highway 770 and waited beside crows eager to pounce on road kill. I hid in the brush, out of view from passing cars, to tilt the scales in our favor, a driver more likely to stop to pick up one, not two hitchhikers. And it worked, a pick-up truck stopped and it was heading our way, towards Millbrooke and Pill and Puff stadium. We sat in the back, the wind blowing every which way making it impossible to have a conversation which was good because there was the hills across the river to stare at and wonder about all the ancient people who had once lived in those mountains, hunting, gathering, and probably performing pilgrimages of their own.
The trucker dropped us off in Merryville, about three miles from the stadium. We were too eager to care about distance and talked about ancient Indians paddling for days and about Van Drummer and I had a hunch Reuben was guarding details about him and I felt like a miner with gold up ahead, imminent.
The parking lot had grills and lawn chairs sprinkled about, free to the public. We walked to a local survival store and bought a bag of charcoal, lighter fluid, hamburger patties, buns, chips, beer, and a frisbee. We cooked and ate and drank and tossed a frisbee back and forth and then, tired out, we stretched out on the lawn chairs, drifted off to sleep, and woke with the sun and ate some leftover buns. We talked about pitching staffs and the Iroquois Confederacy, if there was life after death, inside the park home runs and then it happened. Cars and people started pouring into the parking lot and amongst the mass, rumbled a Green Checker Marathon taxi.
“There he is,” said an excited Reuben. “Now watch.” It was exactly as Reuben had described – the belly, the slow saunter, the smile on his face, the stopping in section F6 of the parking lot, the tying of his shoes. I don’t know if I was mesmerized by his hypnotic movements and smile, seemingly filled with infinite gratitude or it being exactly as Reuben had described, probably both.
“Now this I didn’t tell you about,” whispered Reuben, his eyes squinted and mouth half open. It was the golden nugget, I thought. My head warmed.
Van Drummer stood up from tying his shoes, turned around, walked back to his Marathon taxi, opened the back door, and waved Reuben over, me too. The rest, oh the rest. He drove us around the parking lot for musta been 15 minutes telling us tales from the road, the ukulele and kazoo playing, the pranks, and the beer and also the quiet late night moments on the bus, the overhead lights shining down like a midnight moon, “those moments,” said Van Drummer, “when we talked about our lives in serious ways, the busted marriages and kids and how the past fades and names and faces get blurred, but we always ended up laughing, deciding jointly, that all of it was a gift, one we didn’t really deserve.”
He parked the Marathon in the same spot and then did what Reuben said he would do. He entered through the X concourse and before he disappeared into the dark tunnel, he turned and waved to us.” I thought about the promise a crocus makes, popping through the cold spring soil.
We bought bleacher tickets. Reuben said he always did, to save money and to be beside people struggling to survive. We talked about communism and I bought him two beers.
Van Drummer batted sixth and he struck out and singled and hit a pop fly and then it was the bottom of the ninth and the Monticules were losing 8-0 making the scene kind of quiet and gloomy, but it was Van Drummer and he sliced a cue shot towards first base, a strange sight, him being right-handed and it hurdled the bag and rolled and kept rolling and the stadium wasn’t so big, only 310 down the line, but the fielder got a late jump and the ball caromed out of his reach and then he slipped on the grass and like a locomotive, a 250 pound locomotive, Van Drummer chugged around first and second and didn’t stop, his mind made up for third and he ended his long roam with a miracle belly flop for a triple and Reuben sat back down, stunned, totally stunned by what had just happened, but not lost for words.
“That’s the first triple of his 15-year career. I love triples, so industrious and blue collar, all the effort and sprint, much more satisfying to see than the casual, arrogant, home run trot.”
Van Drummer was stranded on third. The inning ended. The game was over. We exited the stadium with a hippity-hop in our step. We smashed paper beer cups and enjoyed the echo. We bought more beer from the survival store and sat in the parking lot, in those lawn chairs and stayed until sunset and Reuben told tales of Sam “Wahoo” Crawford, that he was born in Wahoo, Nebraska and that he was the all-time major league leader of triples with 309, and Reuben even knew where he was laid to rest and nothing needed to be said. I had 150 bucks. Reuben had 55. Not much, but we had pilgrimage on our minds, hitchhiking to Hollywood, California and then to Inglewood, to visit the grave of Sam “Wahoo” Crawford.
She did more than stare at trees. She talked to them and it wasn’t in English or Spanish or some other language I’d heard riding city buses. There were grunts and cheers and she ended all sentences on a high note.
I first spotted her west of the river. I took an easy swig from my vodka flask and walked closer. She didn’t seem to be bothered.
“What tongue you be speaking miss?” I asked in a fake southern accent.
“My tongue is my treasure,” she snarked back. “Yours to discover,”
We were both on the grass. I had no interest in courting her. I’d been burned too many times by what my friend James called the love mine field and I knew it took courage to be romantic and I was far from cocksure, but she was talking to trees and so I took another swig from the Captain Karkov Vodka bottle and walked even closer.
“You’re The Magnet,” I declared and she began to dance, as if she knew she had me.
“These trees have names,” she explained, “And not just scientific ipshin takis weltis genus and species names, but names I can see in each tree’s branches and bark and the direction its leaves sway.”
She went on to tell me that some are male and some are female and some are neither and that some needed water on quarter moons and others needed even more water on half moons.
“And what about full moons, Miss Magnet?” I asked.
“I don’t know about full moons,” she said. “I stay inside and dance to music, all kinds of music.”
She had olive-colored skin, on her face anyway. There were also patches of peach on her arms and black on her legs. She had dark eyes…..eyes you could never know, like outer space, and infinity and all that. I figured she had a bunch of cats, clipped coupons, and loved simple black coffee.
“You can tell a lot about someone the way they park their shoes for the night,” she continued, “the two facing different directions, one towards Bismarck, the other towards Galveston.”
God I loved her in that moment and then it got even better.
“I glean things from the Salvation Army,” she revealed.
“What kind of things?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, like sweaters, silverware, old books, boots, whatever I feel like. Changes every day.”
I was hooked. I was screwed. I loved her. I told her I had to go. It was all happening too fast, but it was serotonin spike real.
“Well, now you know where I am,” she said and began that dance again, a dance that stayed in my mind like a walk-off grand slam.
It was spring and I started thinking about train station scoreboards and unknown destinations and The Marshall Tucker Band echoed in my mind, that song, “Can’t you See” and I wished it was a full moon and I was at The Magnet’s apartment listening to all kinds of music, to The Marshall Tucker Band, so she would know what she was “Doing to Me” but I’m sure she already knew.
She coulda been 55 or 25 and either way I would have loved her. I was no priest.
I shook my head as I walked away, one shake after another, shakes of starry skies and tombstone weeds because I knew what I was in for, the same as last time – beautiful trouble. I crossed the Locust Street Bridge and there was a Sentry grocery store on the other side and I needed a distraction; I needed people, other people to cure me and there beside the magazine rack, reading the Farmer’s Almanac was Andy Watts. He had given me a book of his poems a few months back. He had one poem about rewriting the 10 commandments and two of the commandments were the same – to love more than your significant other. He decorated his car on the outside with sculptures he’d made, mostly human heads with animal bodies. He talked to strangers. He hung out at diners and was glad to see me. He didn’t waste any time. He invited me back to his apartment. That’s what I loved about the world. You could meet people and yes, mom was right, don’t take candy from strangers, but that was only part of the story. Not everybody drives around in hearses with a megaphone strapped to the top, screaming end of the world…….no, there were actually some pretty god damn cool people and yes, they had to pay bills and deal with bullshit, but they were also going for it, trying to hook up with others and compare notes and make love and what not.
Andy bought the Almanac. He said he liked reading the parts that predicted the weather. We walked along Downer Avenue to his little apartment near the lake. Andy never locked his door. He invited me to sit down at the kitchen table. I offered him a drink from my flask. We passed it back and forth for a few swigs. And then he disappeared and returned with some cardboard. I had no idea Andy loved baseball cards. I had no idea he loved baseball. I had no idea he knew I loved baseball and baseball cards.
“You know Enos Goudey?” he asked.
I squinted my eyes, a signal for Andy to continue.
“These are Goudeys,” he explained and he went on and on about the cards being from 1933, about the beautiful colors and player poses, and the gum company’s founder, Enos Goudey being from Nova Scotia.
“The baseball cards came after Goudey sold the company. Pick one. Take it to her,” he encouraged.
“To who?” I asked, defensively, shy, embarrassed, refusing to admit that everyone knows.
“Bring it to her.”
Andy spread the cards out. There were colors everywhere.
“Take your time.”
I liked them all…..really gave me goose bumps like it might do some other kid at the Louvre, but Edgar “Sam” Rice caught my eye, not only because I loved rice, but because of the look on his teeth; he looked a little like a rabbit or maybe not, but he did to me and well I knew about rabbit habits when it came to love making and I had “The Magnet” on my mind.
“Take it and go well young lover,” said poet Andy and well, I never trusted orders, but this felt like a blessing so off I went, to cross the Locust Street Bridge again, to see “The Magnet” and when I got there, she wasn’t dancing or talking to plants, she was stomping like an angry kid who had missed Christmas morning and crying too and when she noticed me, she indicated with a wave to get lost. She was kicking me to the curb. We hadn’t even kissed yet and already I was in her dog house and I loved The Magnet even more. I flashed her my Edgar “Sam” Rice Goudey card.
“And don’t come back,” she added.
But I knew I’d be back to see her again and again and again and I’d bring her more Goudey baseball cards and she would talk to them too and I knew The Magnet would once again talk to trees as well and spring and summer would warm up to humid and all the world would be loose and me, I mean we, The Magnet and I would drink Vodka and walk along the forbidden railroad tracks and trespass in cemeteries and spend hours at Burger King, making a deck of cards out of empty cigarette packs we had collected and her horse mane hair would shine and there would be new day coffees and spots under the abandoned highway 770 overpass and the view from Charboneau hill, ahhhhhhh, The Magnet, just daydreaming about her was better than beer and bible Wednesdays at old St. Hedwig’s even if The Magnet apparently never wanted to see me again.
Damon lived a few houses south of us, on the other side of the street. 6136 was the address. We never talked, not until he mounted what looked like a skeleton on his leather jacket shoulder. Then I suddenly wanted to know him and so I did whatever any 13-year-old kid would do; I struck up a conversation, my curiosity fueling my social bravery. He told me he had a cat and she killed mice and would leave the skeleton on their back porch, as a token of its appreciation for taking care of it and that he mounted the skeleton on his shoulder in appreciation of his cat. I liked that.
We talked about music. He had an older brother named Mitchel who had a record collection that snaked around his room. We immediately liked the Clash and the Psychedelic Furs. It was our entry point into the massive family tree of music. We used to hang out in his basement and listen to records. We cut our hair off with a sewing sheers. We drank Port Wine, three dollars a bottle. Mitchel bought it for us. We kicked over garbage cans and fences and collected expired candy and chips from a trash bin behind the 7/11.
It sucked when Damon went away to summer camp. It was a Jesus, religious camp. Weird because he wasn’t the last bit religious. In fact, he used to mock his mom when she would barge in on us, early in the morning sleeping off a port wine night and say, “Today is the day the lord has made.” Damon would roll over and tell her, “Yeh, but he’s gonna make tomorrow too so let us sleep.”
He went because of a girl – Sandra Boyce. I knew her. She had black hair. She walked pigeon-toed and liked music too, comic books, cars, even baseball. She loved the Cubs and the White Sox because her father had moved to Chicago after the divorce and took care of her every summer so they would go to a lot of games. I could understand how Damon got smitten or whatever by her. Sandra invited a bunch of us over to watch boxing matches on pay per view tv and she didn’t even make us pay! Her mom paid. But to follow a girl to a Jesus freak camp? It struck me as kind of desperate. I was jealous.
Anyway, he sent me a few postcards, funny ones in his patented sarcasm, “Had 20 cents to waste so I though I’d send you this card.” The summer went slow, really slow. I was bored and it was 1981 so there was no baseball in July. The strike was on. I remember how stupid or cruel it all seemed, that word, “strike.” I had grown fond of the Brewers Rollie Fingers knack for throwing strikes that first half of the 1981 season and now that word STRIKE. I didn’t even want to play little league anymore.
But like a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, all things, good or bad, come to an end and so the baseball strike ended and Damon came home from Jesus camp and he had changed, not physically; he still had those bowl cut bangs and long hair in the back and still had the mice skeleton mounted on his leather jacket shoulder, but he was smiling a hell of a lot more and that laugh of his. It was loud and lasted a long time. I told him it sounded fake and he said I was right, that it was fake, that he was faking it until making it. That was his new expression – “Fake it to you make it”
Damon wound up hosting a radio show on the far left side of the FM dial. We lost touch. I wonder if he married Sandra Boyce or if he goes to church? I doubt it. But I’m glad I met him, glad he went to Jesus camp and than came home and I’m glad there was a baseball strike and then an end to the strike. It instilled in me hope that tomorrow might be better.