|GATOR SPRINGS GAZETTE|
a literary journal of the fictional persuasion
The Green Line train pulled in just as the old man stepped onto the tracks crossing Blandford Street. Brakes screamed; the engineer gaped in horror as a fuzzy grey head bounced down, out of her sight.
The train shuddered to a stop. For a beat, the shadowed facades of drugstore and the high-rise dormitory, the clutch of waiting students, two mothers wheeling babies down the sidewalk across Commonwealth Avenue, and Professor Harold Whitcomb, in neatly-pressed jeans and Birkenstocks, held their breath.
Then everyone sprang to life. Except the old man.
Professor Whitcomb, the first to reach the body, squatted on the track and laid his palm on the bony chest. He looked up at the engineer, who leaned against the train, face stunned, mouth pressed into a bilious white line. Students converged; the mothers stepped their strollers off the curb and cut through cars now slowed to a crawl. “He’s dead,” said the professor.
The old man’s blue eyes stared at the sky. His mouth gaped; a string of blood dangled from the corner. From the tip of his electric white hair to his waist, he lay supine. Below that, his body made an India-rubber half-turn, and his skinny right buttocks stuck up, inviting the world to pick his hip pocket.
Professor Harold Whitcomb obliged, gingerly sliding long fingers in and fishing out a battered, bulging wallet. He flipped it open, rummaged through dollar bills and paper scraps, and extracted a driver’s license. “Isador Santoro,” he announced.
The engineer nodded dumbly, hand over her mouth.
Professor Whitcomb closed the old man’s eyelids with two manicured fingertips. He stood up, the wallet in his hand. “Might anyone have a telephone?”
Hands dove into backpacks and pockets and pulled out cell phones. “You,” the professor pointed to a girl with three rings in her eyebrow, “please call 911. You,” he nodded to a boy with a shaved head,” allow the engineer to call whomever she must. The rest of you,” he assumed his basso-profundo classroom voice, “kindly move along.”
The crowd dispersed, throwing furtive backward glances at the dead man. “Man,” said a tattooed boy, “That was wicked weird! ”
Professor Harold Whitcomb looked down at the track, at the peaceful face. How perfectly Dickinson had put it: The quiet nonchalance of death.
He opened the wallet to replace the license, and his eyes caught a corner of thin cardboard that poked from between two bills. He glanced around. The engineer sobbed into the bald student’s phone; the pierced girl guarded Blandford Street, her back to him. The mothers were gone; rubbernecking drivers crawled by. The professor quickly thumbed the bills apart.
“Oh, my,” he murmured.
Miriam Santoro Doucette’s legs ached under her nylons; all this standing played hell with her varicose veins. She nodded to the mourner threading past. Touched a hand—Yes, thank you. Sagged into a perfumed hug—Yes, thank you. She felt old, weary. She nodded as one of Uncle Izzy’s cronies, smelling of beer, tipped a toupeed head. At 86, Izzy had griped that all his friends were dead. Bullshit; this line was endless. Miriam patted the shoulder of a suit that overwhelmed its owner—Yes, thank you—and passed the little man on to her husband George. She sighed. It had just turned September, but the funeral home was stifling. She longed to throw open a window to blow away the lily-sweet stink.
Miriam had loved her uncle fiercely. He had grown a bit forgetful in the past year, and she had begun taking casseroles to his Southie apartment to make sure he ate. Still, at 86, he had been pretty damned sharp.
Uncle Izzy had been a bachelor. Marriage, he’d told her many, many times, is an institution; who wants to be locked up in an institution? He called her his Family. He had been her surrogate dad since that long-ago day when his brother, her drunken asshole father—she nodded to Izzy’s landlady: Yes, thank you—had run off to parts unknown with her kindergarten teacher.
It was Uncle Izzy who had taken her to the library and the Franklin Park Zoo. To bet the dogs at Wonderland, where he had called her “Alice,” and grinned for her like the Cheshire Cat. Uncle Izzy had taught her how to ride a bike, how to play poker. How to throw a baseball. Miriam squinted—no tears, goddammit—and thought of all those times she’d sat with Izzy at Fenway Park. Seats 1 and 2, Row CC, Section 16. Across from the Green Monster. Those summer days when she’d waited, catcher’s mitt cocked, for a foul ball. Those summer nights when she’d marked time during changeovers, listening to Izzy’s dissertation on infield flies, watching the signs dance over Kenmore Square—the neon geyser of White Fuel; Citgo’s square lighting bar by bar, its red triangle filling from the middle.
She clasped her mailman’s hand and remembered, suddenly, that she and Izzy had scheduled their annual Fenway date for next week. This year would have been their 40th.
Just the day before he died—she passed the mailman on—Izzy had opened his wallet and shown her the tickets. Sox versus Yankees, 1:15 Sunday. Eight days from today. “This is it, Mimsy.” He’d nudged her with his bony elbow. “Aught-three: the year they break the Curse.” The year they break the Curse. He told her that every year, bless his poor old heart. Every year for 40 years. And now…
She swiped her eyes with the heel of her hand, stepped back, mumbled a half-assed apology to George.
In the restroom, Miriam blew her nose on a fistful of toilet paper. Ah, God. She examined the squat bottle-blonde fifty-four-year-old woman in the mirror, seeing Fenway Park, herself next to an empty seat. George wouldn’t come; he didn’t know a sinker from a slider. He was a football man, the Pats. It was their one irreconcilable difference; she’d joked more than once that it was surely grounds for divorce.
She dabbed powder on her red nose. Ah, God. Next Sunday’s game would break her heart. She had half a mind to forget about it—but Izzy wouldn’t want that. Uncle Izzy was so proud of those tickets. Only he and God knew where he got them; games against the Yanks sold out on Day One. And this year, the Sox were hot. This year, he just might be right; they just might break the Curse. She had to use his tickets.
She sniffed, lifted her mascara wand—
The wand wavered; her bloodshot eyes grew round.
Where were Izzy’s tickets?
In his wallet. But–
The cop had given her the wallet. She had found—she lowered the wand and frowned—a Mastercard, pictures of her and George and their son Al, who lived in Spain. An AARP card. A license that made Izzy look like Bela Lugosi. Scraps of paper scribbled with phone numbers.
But no Red Sox tickets. They weren’t there.
If they had been there, she would have seen them.
Absolutely. Miriam stared at herself, watched her cheeks flush with a wave of heat. Yes. How could I ever miss them?
She crammed the cap on the mascara, her hand trembling. They should have been there. Uncle Izzy wouldn’t have taken them out until they hit the turnstile. Even pleasantly drunk—as he usually was back before he joined AA—he kept a death-grip on Seats 1 and 2, Row CC, Section 16. They were more than tickets; they were history. Forty years. They’d beer-toasted her high school graduation at Fenway—June 1966, Sox vs. Twins. They’d clicked Coke bottles, post-AA, to Izzy’s retirement from AT&T—August 1979, Sox vs. Chicago. That was the season—but unfortunately not the date—when Yaz blasted his 3000th hit. Hell, she’d almost delivered Al in Seat 2—August 1971, Sox vs. Yanks.
She threw the mascara tube into her purse.
Someone had ripped off Izzy’s tickets.
A lump rose in her throat. She felt…violated.
Ah, God. She’d call the station.
But what cop would admit he’d rifled a dead man’s wallet?
Miriam’s eyes narrowed.
Screw the bastard.
She spat in the sink. If there’s any justice in this world, God’ll burn the bastard’s fingers with those tickets. God’ll run him down with a car full of nuns. God’ll break his leg on the Fenway steps.
A vague guilt tugged at her gut. It really wasn’t Hoyle to ask God for such things.
But… She caught her breath. Yes.
She could ask Tony C.
Miriam had adored Tony Conigliaro, body and soul. She never met him, but Uncle Izzy’s best friend had gone to Revere High with Tony’s dad, and Izzy’d scored her an autographed baseball for her 19th birthday. Tall, darkly handsome Tony C, all that promise. Lost. She was there, in seat 2, back in August of ’67, when that asshole Hamilton had beaned him with his goddamned rogue fastball. She’d jumped to her feet and yelled herself hoarse, cursed that bastard to the darkest recesses of hell. California Angels, her ass.
After that, Tony C was half-blind. He came back and hit homers—39 in 1970. But he wasn’t the same. When he hung up his spikes in ’71, she’d solemnly broken and buried that 45 of his, Why Don’t They Understand. Such a sweet voice, for an outfielder.
Granted, Tony C wasn’t an official saint. He’d only died a few years ago—young, only 45. You had to be dead practically forever to be an official saint. But he was a baseball saint. A martyr. She crossed herself. “Tony,” she addressed the ceiling, eyes glittering, “grab that bastard and jam those tickets right up his ass.”
Professor Harold Whitcomb held out the tickets, his composure belying the tattoo of his heartbeat. “It’s this Sunday. I am inviting you to join me.” They sat together—together!—on a stone bench beneath the highway bridge on Commonwealth Avenue. The professor, giddy with hope—the thing with feathers—smiled, a studied, blasé upturn of lips. “Feel free to examine them. Wonderful seats—I believe they’re right behind third base.” He caught his breath as fingers brushed his, lifted the tickets from them.
“Hmm. Behind first base.”
“Well,” the professor shrugged, “that’s good, too.”
“Not as good.”
The strapping young man examined the tickets, ran thick, dark, pink-nailed fingers over “New York Yankees,” printed above the soft-focus action photo of Nomar Garciaparra. He moved his lips, silently reading the date, section, seat numbers. A bright boy. A bit academically challenged, but that would not hamper him. The professor had seen football players come and go, here and at five previous colleges. Most were far more ignorant than Travis. It amused the professor that, so long as these young Trojans scrambled and punted and passed and thrust and parried and did whatever the devil else football players did, so long as they commended their golden bodies to the greater glory and fiscal benefit of the School, their grades seemed to take care of themselves.
And this boy was a star. His department head had told the professor so at the beginning of summer. It had been a subtle warning; the previous semester, Professor Whitcomb had struck trepidation into administrative hearts by awarding the basketball team’s center a much-deserved “Fail” in Medieval English Poetry.
Travis would not fail. The professor observed the boy’s shapely biceps, his wide shoulders, that deep concentration dimple in his left cheek. Beauty mercy have on me. Travis was Beauty, power, a dark Greek god. If the boy had not exactly risen to conquer his summer Great American Novels class, he had certainly persevered. His indefatigability, his doggedness, had captured the professor’s heart. And, of course, his physical perfection. Harold Whitcomb was a discerning man. What purpose Beauty, but to attract the discerning eye, to engage the discerning brain, to reward the discerning heart. He beamed; later, he must write that down.
The boy rose and faced him. “I know what game you’re playing here.”
The professor crooked an eyebrow. It was cool in the shadow of the bridge, yet he felt sweat trickle beneath his buttoned-down collar. “I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, yeah.” The glint in the brown eyes pricked up hairs on the back of the professor’s neck. A breeze flirted by: the breath of disaster? The professor kept his face impassive.
The boy shook the tickets at the professor. “All that bullshit in class—‘Perfect answer, Travis!’” he minced. “‘Your grasp of the symbolism’s unpeckable, Travis!’”
“Impeccable.” The professor’s voice rasped.
The boy snorted. “Whatever, man. As if I gave a rat’s ass about that fucking whale!”
Professor Whitcomb’s heart contracted. “My admiration was quite sincere. You have a marvelous natural grasp–”
“Yeah, man.” A knife-blade laugh. “Like it’s Moby Dick you want me to ‘grasp.’” He shook his head. “Man, you’re a sad old pervert.”
Harold Whitcomb’s hand moved, of its own will, to smooth thin blond hair over his crown. “I am not—old.”
“I’ll be talking about you, man.” The boy shook the tickets. “You best be watching your back.” He turned on his heel.
“I am not old!” the professor cried to the retreating figure. “Love is not perversion.” Then, “My tickets!”
The boy did not look back as he stepped up to the sidewalk.
Professor Harold Whitcomb dropped his head into his hands.
Ah, if he could but leap up, grab the boy. Curse the sky. Fling his barbaric yawp from the great, black pit of injustice into which he had been tumbled. Instead, dizzy, heartsick, nauseated, brain afire, he placed his palm on the still-warm stone beside him and raised his head, watched the boy—broad shoulders, trim waist, neat, muscled buttocks—stride down Com Ave with a grace that burned his throat.
If the highway overhead were to fall, cars and trucks rolling him flat, could it be more tragic? Beauty had electrified him, then played him false. Beauty had laid waste his soul.
A good line; poignant.
To die here, of Beauty’s loss. He laughed bitterly. Death would be too easy. Dickinson knew: ‘Tis not that Dying hurts us so—‘Tis Living hurts us more…
Professor Harold Whitcomb was finished.
For the sixth time in fourteen years.
Travis snaked an arm around Cyrena’s narrow waist. “Hey, baby, don’t tell me that,” he murmured into her hair. “We can’t pass this up; this is special. ” He squeezed her. “Pedro Martinez, baby.”
She pulled away, full lips pouted, eyes ominous. “You’ve known about this for what, three weeks now? What am I supposed to tell Mama?”
“Awwww, baby.” He pulled her close, moved his lips down her neck. Damn, that was some soft skin, there. He nibbled where the shoulder joined and felt her shiver.
“TRA-avvy—she’s been working forever on it—you wouldn’t believe the food in the freezer. Empanadillas, pollo–”
“I’ll come to next year’s.” He was at heart very glad for the tickets, the excuse. Man. Meeting her entire family—aunts and uncles and cousins chattering in Spanish, cutting their eyes at his dark skin—who wouldn’t prefer Fenway? And the Yankees! This had been sold out since before he was born. What if—Pedro was facing Clemens?
“Mama’s expecting you. You promised.”
He slid his hand up under her T-shirt, cupped lace and a perfect, round breast.
She pushed her palm against his chest, but there was no determination in it. “Ah, sugar,” she moaned. “We got to talk.”
He picked her up—surprised as always to find such roundness bird-light—and carried her three steps to the cracked naugahyde couch. Dusty light slanted through the basement window and caressed her tan cheek, her nose with its little bump, her wild halo of soft brown hair.
He pulled down his shorts, then hers. “Damn, baby.” He folded her neatly under himself, rubbing skin against skin, sending sparks up his spine. He grinned and nuzzled her ear. “Who’s your daddy?”
She should have cracked up; she always did, at that corny line. But she didn’t. He nudged with his chin. “C’mon, baby—who’s your daddy?” He took her earlobe in his teeth, right below the little gold stud.
“You.” Something in her voice; he halted mid-nibble.
“You are—going to be a daddy.”
He pulled himself upright. “What??”
The crinkle between her wide golden eyes promised tears. “I’m going to have a baby.”
He leapt off the couch and pulled up his shorts. “You can’t, Cyrena. You’re on the pill.” He stopped, looked her in the eye. “You are, right?”
Sure enough, a tear dropped and sparkled on her cheek. “Travvy, sugar, I was a virgin when I met you. Why would I be on the pill?”
He let that sink in.
She swallowed. “And then, well, it just seemed too hard—find somebody to give it to me and all, being so young; take the stupid things every day… I just never thought–”
“Every girl I’ve ever met’s been on the pill.”
“Maybe they weren’t.” Her eyes flashed. “Maybe there’s a little Travis out there somewhere you don’t know about. Maybe there’s a whole lot of Travises. Maybe a whole country. Travisland.”
He raised his hands in surrender. “Take it easy, girl. It’s just—man, I got to think. You know? I mean, I got a little money in the bank, but it ain’t much, and it’s for school, you know? I don’t know how much this thing’s going to cost me–”
“What thing?” She gave him a blank look. Then her eyes grew wide. “Oh, no. No. Not that. I couldn’t kill our baby.”
“It’s not a baby–”
“No! No way! Besides, Mama’d kick me out of the house.”
He pinned his smoothest smile on his face. “You don’t have to tell your mama, baby–”
“I already told her.”
He stared at her. “You told your mama before you told me?”
She nodded, tears dropping.
“You mean,” his voice rose, “your mama knows about,” he thrust his hips, ”you and me? What we been…”
“She had me when she was sixteen.” She folded her arms, raised her chin defiantly. “She’s been through this herself.”
“Well, fuck, Cyrena–” He sank down on his grandmother’s rocking chair. “Jeez, man.” It made no sense. Women made no sense. He rocked furiously. This wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening to him. In five minutes, an hour, he was going to wake up and find he’d dreamed the whole thing. Her hand touched his face, as solid and real as the chair under him. He refused to look up. “We’re too young to have a baby,” he said.
She sat down lightly on his lap, put her arms around his neck, tried to smile. “We love each other, right? We can make it work. I’ll go to school at night and get my GED–”
“I got college to worry about. I can’t be anybody’s daddy right now.” He saw his grandmother, skinny elbows dug into the counter of Kim’s convenience store, giving him the hard eye, the you-failed-me eye, the I-saved-every-spare-penny-for-you eye. Saved to buy him books and that computer—and now, this. He glanced around the apartment and saw Gram in its shabby cleanliness, its neat austerity.
Cyrena traced his dimple with her finger; he felt himself becoming aroused, and mentally cursed the entire process. So easy. She could get him going so easy. Jeez, man—a little loving, a little hold-each-other, put-this-in-there, and Wham—you get a kid. And you’re chained to the kid for life, even if you run away, like Travis, Sr.; even if you die, like Cyrena’s old man. There’s this chain cuts into you, that you drag each other around with, down with. The punishment just didn’t fit the crime.
She lifted his chin. “You got to come Sunday, Travvy.” Her voice was soft, pleading. “I need you to come.”
His breath stuck. The chain, tightening around his neck.
“So,” she said, “you probably ought to give those tickets back.”
“I can’t.” He looked away. “They were a gift.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, what are you going to do with them?”
He breathed in, and his throat loosened. He stared at her face. The light was dim, but he saw everything—golden eyes, bumpy nose, too-wide lips, every imperfect pore—as if she were under the microscope in his biology lab. His grandma had warned him six months ago: Stay away from Dominican girls. They are not like us, she had said, eyes pained, the black irises fraying into old-newspaper yellow. Dominican girls are all about sex. They’re all about trapping themselves a man.
Right now, Cyrena looked like Miss Dominican Republic. What was he going to do with the tickets? I’m going to use them—it was on the tip of his tongue, waiting to show her who’s boss.
But—he saw the fear in her face. And he saw his father’s splay-bristled toothbrush, the only thing the old man had left behind. Saw his mother dead, needle stuck in her arm, at 28; his grandma, hustling him out of the room. Gram, Ma, Cyrena’s mama—the women, sad and weak, strong and proud. All the women, foundering or muscling through life without their men.
Travis squared his shoulders. “I can sell them to this guy at work, I guess.”
I gave him ten bucks each over price. He’s covered my butt more than once when I come in late, bleeding from the eyeballs. Good worker, for a black kid. Must’ve needed bread, to give up 65-buck seats.
I don’t buy in quantity, like some guys. It’s a sideline. So’s the video store gig. And the shit—only for my good buddies; weed, hash, E, nothing hard. See, what I am’s a DJ. Right now, it’s part-time, garbage gigs. But once I make it in the club scene, hang on, Spooky. No more spinning “YMCA” at some old fart’s five-hundredth. No more sales. For now, though, the more fires for my iron, the better. The Ex just informed me we’re sending the kid to Phillips. Surprise.
Danny’s a smart little trick; still, I swear to god the woman’s doing it to bleed me dry.
Anyway, normally, start of the season, I pick a few games—Yankees, preferably. Me, my buddies Mike and Weasel, we buy four each per game—grandstand, nothing fancy. I pay the guys up front, five bucks per over price. That’s a lot of dough up front—three, four thou—and yeah, it’s a gamble. Beats Mass Millions, though, right? I hawk them over the ‘net, double, maybe triple my investment. Smooth, safe, tax-free, everybody’s happy.
However. Somebody sells me tickets last minute, like the kid, I’ve got to go down to Fenway. In person.
Now, there’s profit to be made there. I can turn a grandstand into a hundred, hundred-fifty, if the game’s hot. But—you run the risk of getting busted. I don’t know the Plainclothes Cops; don’t know who’s straight, who’s fixable. That sucks.
Wasn’t for that, I’d go every game. See, I got a talent for mano-a-mano. I’m no baseball fan—too slow; give me hockey; there’s a sport—but I do my homework. I know the game, the players, the park. I can make the product sing.
It doesn’t hurt I’m no Frankenstein. Tall, got all my hair. Clean; hey, I even buff my shoes. This hot chick, this model, she told me once I look like Robert Redford.
So anyway, to make the Fenway gig worth the risk, I get on the horn, score four more seats. Obstructed View. I had to shell out fifty apiece, but hell, sold-out game, wild-card race, Martinez, Clemens—Rocket’s last season, looks like—it’s filet mignon. I keep my butt out of the Glamour Slammer, I can’t lose. So I take me out to the ballgame.
I got to Kenmore at 10, less than two hours before Fenway opens. Super day—blue sky, fluffy little white clouds, people up the wazoo. Some of my fellow Sales Agents are already out there, working the Com Ave T stop, gumming up foot traffic like one friggin’ salmon swimming downstream when the rest are swimming up. One guy scores right in front of me—Obstructeds, a hundred each. Subtle. I’d’ve been a cop, I could’ve busted him right there.
The Jesus Saves guy was out, corner of Brookline and Yawkey, next to the ticket office. The Jesus Saves guy wears this big sandwich-board sign with people burning and a big cross. He gives out pamphlets. People pass him up, not so much as a Hi, there. I feel bad for the guy—he’s just doing his gig, right? So I take one, keep it ‘til I’m out of sight. What the hell—doesn’t hurt me; makes him feel like he’s made a sale.
In my book, the best way to get people jonesing for something is to put it in their face. So I set up in front of the ticket office, just up from the corner. You can see Gate A, plus you’ve got the office; guy walks in, sees the game’s sold out. Little reinforcement can’t hurt.
I took my time. Relaxed. Beat a little Jungle on my knee. Observed. I see a customer. I stand up straight, tuck my shirt in, ask—quiet, polite, all business—if he needs tickets.
My first customer, this old fart, pink polo shirt, baggy shorts, skinny legs sticking out like pipe-cleaners, looks my tickets up, down, sideways, eats up five minutes of my time and says No thanks, he can do better. Probably a Jew. I didn’t even show him the good seats. I know people; I knew right off they’re too rich for his blood.
I hang ‘til around 11, no real bites. Then I see this guy with his son. Bingo. Big spenders.
The guy’s my age, got this plaid shirt and stunned-ox look that screams Tourist. He’s yanking the kid along—kid’s five, six maybe, pasty-faced, fat little guy in this Sox shirt that comes down to his knees. Says “Garciaparra” on back with a big red “5.” All I could do not to laugh—like Garciaparra ever looked like this kid?
I put on my best Revere—Reveeah—accent and squat down to the kid and say, “Hey, you gonna go see Nomah?” Kid looks me in the eye, says, “I don’t feel too good.” I stand up, tell his dad what a Wicked Smaht little kid he’s got, ask if he needs tickets.
The kid’s yanking on his dad’s hand; he says “I don’t feel too good.” But Daddy says he’ll be just fine. And we start to parley.
I get him up to one-twenty-five each, and the boy goes, “Daaaaddy,” that whiny voice that makes your teeth grind. “Daaaaddy—I don’t feel so good.”
Dad tells him, Don’t think about it. He’s reaching for his wallet, honest to god, when the kid blew lunch. Friggin’ A!—one second, I’m closing the deal; next, I’ve got sausage grinder all over my Clarkes, and my customer grabs his kid by the big red “5,” hauls his butt off, leaves me standing there with my Masshole accent and the friggin’ tickets. I look at my shoes, about to lose it myself. Man. I don’t do sick kids; my Ex’ll vouch for that. Danny barfed, he was hers.
I stuck the tickets in my shirt pocket with the rest. That was my first mistake. My second was walking out behind the Jesus Saves guy to grab a napkin out of the street. To wipe my shoes. So. I bend over; next thing, I’m face-down in the middle of Yawkey Way, tickets all over hell, this car bumper hanging over my chucked-up feet.
Circus time. People yelling, running—I push up on my elbows, grab for the tickets, snag three, go for four—This big, shiny black shoe beats me to it. I look up. There, like some Catholic wet-dream, is this, this huge blue guy, his head stuck into the sun like it’s his personal halo. But it’s not Jesus. No, man—it’s a friggin’ cop.
I blink; he splits in two, zips back together, like I’ve been hitting the bong. Jesus.
Speaking of which, the Jesus Saves guy is standing right next to the cop in his sign, fist full of pamphlets. They both look down at me, nod. Look at the crowd, nod. Look at the car. Nod.
I look at the car. It’s a black Dodge Dart, Canuck plates. I look up the hood and I see ten, twenty grey-haired ladies staring out the windshield at me, eyes like fried eggs. Cop reaches down, nabs the fourth ticket. He eyeballs the ones in my hand. Grins. Says, “I had my eye on you.”
He helps me up, snaps the cuffs on and Mirandas me. Pulls me up to the car. I count the old ladies; there’s really only five. Cop says, “He’s okay, Sisters.”
Okay? My knee’s sticking out of my good pants. My elbow’s bloody. I’ve got dried barf on my shoes. I’m in handcuffs. I’m okay.
The passenger-side lady leans out, tells the cop they’re looking for Storrow Drive. All that construction, you know? She says, “I told Sister Ophelia she shouldn’t drive right after getting her cataracts done.”
My right ear’s ringing high-F; I’m this far from passing out. The cop’s giving Sister Mary Magoo directions. I look down, there’s something in my hand. A pamphlet: Jesus friggin’ Saves.
Armand leaned against the brick façade of Fenway and gathered his wits, scrambled by the car full of nuns, the scalper, the cop. He flicked his tongue over cracked lips and mumbled, “Fuckinidiot drivers. Goddamnfuckinidiot drivers.” Armand needed a drink; his left eye was ticking. He raked his tangled grey hair from his eyes and extended a shaking palm to a Yuppie couple. “Change?!” he demanded. Their eyes veered away. “Goddamnfuckin CHANGE?!” he bawled.
“Change.” The voice was thin but clear. Armand turned to find himself face to face with the Jesus Saves guy. He shrank back into the wall.
“Change,” said the Jesus Saves guy, holding up pamphlets.
Armand shook his head. His left eyelid flapped like a cartoon window shade. A beer would stop it. Maybe a six-pack.
“It’s not literature,” said the Jesus Saves guy. “It’s a chance to Change your life.”
Armand looked at the man’s hand. It fluttered and fuzzed; he focused his right eye, brought his nose close.
“Take them. Sell them. They’re worth good money—see?” He pointed a bitten fingernail. Armand again focused right. Dollar sign. Six-five-dot-oh-oh.
Armand one-eyed the narrow, earnest face, the clear blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, the sandwich board’s lurid burning souls and their out-of-reach cross. The two tickets. “What the fuck you want?”
“Nothing,” said the Jesus Saves guy. “These are your Tickets to Change. Here.” He closed Armand’s fingers around the tickets. “Sell them; you can buy beer–”
Armand nodded frenetically.
“Or you can buy a meal and have enough left for a suit at the Salvation Army. Start a new life. Make a Change.”
Armand’s left eye flickered. “I need a fuckin’ beer.”
The Jesus Saves guy smiled sadly. “Jesus understands your weakness. He died to give you strength, and He left these tickets in the street for you. He led me to conceal them beneath my shoe for your sake. These tickets are Hope. If you choose to throw it away on a beer–” He shrugged. “It is our choice to sin—or to put our burdens in the Lord’s hands. For there is nothing we cannot do, with Jesus at our side.”
Armand lowered his eyes—tic, tic—to the tickets. He needed a beer more than he needed Jesus. But—What if these were Jesus’ tickets? And he sold them for beer? Would the beer poison him, then send him straight to Hell?
His heart tripped. He opened his mouth to ask the man.
“Don’t thank me.” The Jesus Saves guy stuck a pamphlet in the tattered pocket of Armand’s red polyester bowling shirt. “Thank the Lord. I am only His Instrument. When you have fed and cleansed and clothed yourself with the Lord’s bounty, feed and cleanse your mind with this literature.”
Armand looked down at his pocket, then up—but the man had disappeared. Like a ghost. Or—Armand’s fevered brain whispered—like a goddamnfuckin angel.
“Tickets!” Armand held them gingerly in front of his concave chest. “Goddamnfuckin TICKETS!”
A large woman in stretch-pants flicked him a look of horror. Armand ground his teeth. “It’s a goddamnfuckin TIC, lady. TICKETS!” His hand shook; the tickets Morse-coded sunlight in sync with his bip-bip left eye. People gave him a wide berth, and Armand thought, maybe it didn’t matter if Jesus’ tickets sent him to Hell, because he was there already. Was fire worse than bugs and nightmares and his rag-nest under the Longfellow bridge getting colder by the night? Or the shelter, where his mouth and his eye—neither of which seemed to take their marching orders from his brain—got him pounded until he pissed blood and was down to his last five teeth?
He sagged against the brick and scowled.
This was the King of Stupid Ideas. The man had put him up to this to mock him.
Armand turned his head and one-eyed the intersection. There the sandwich board, the hand full of pamphlets. People flooded by—hundreds, because Fenway’d opened its gates. The man just stood there like a complete fool, in the way, ignored.
The guy had to be crazy. Or drunk. He pressed his fingers over his spastic eye. But…Armand knew crazy—and he damned well knew drunk. He’d looked into the man’s eyes; this guy was neither.
Sonovabitch. He was for real.
Armand pinned his good eye on the sandwich board, took a rubbery step forward, bumped a fat man, recoiled, advanced, gaping at the flaming sinners reaching for that cross, sinners crying in pain, pain sharper than a kick in the kidneys, harder than a fist to the mouth. Armand yearned to drop his pain in Yawkey Way. He was so tired. His left eye watered furiously. Could it be true? Would Jesus take it?
Armand had gone to church back when he’d had a wife and an apartment and a car. Jesus hadn’t done jack shit for him when the wife left and the landlord locked him out and the repo men came. But that was after the war, when he was doing Horse. What about now?
That man believed; that man in the goddamnfuckin SANDWICH BOARD, for bleedingchristssake.
His good eye was leaking, his heart filling up with tears; he gripped the rattling tickets like a lifeline, cried TICKETS! His knees shook under the weight of a new, wonderful, horrible hope; he felt himself slip, would have fallen but for a strong hand under his arm that raised him up—
“Mister, you’ve been selling tickets,” said a stern voice. Armand blinked; the helping hand was connected to a stocky young man in a black T-shirt. The man's other hand waved a badge, blinding in the sunlight. A second man stood beside him.
“Sonovabitchfuckinass–” It fell out of Armand’s mouth, and he jerked his head back because the cop would smash him in the face for it.
But the cop just gripped Armand’s arm. “Let’s see those tickets.” His face was heavy, with fat black caterpillar eyebrows. Armand’s left eyelid tap-danced as the cop pulled the tickets from his fingers. He felt a stab of rage: They were Jesus’s. He clamped his teeth to hold the words in.
The cop wiped the tickets on his shorts, examined them, nodded to his sidekick, who was tall and very thin. “Looks like we got us some evidence. What do you think, Thursty?” The cop’s bully eyes made Armand want to fold himself as small as an egg.
The sidekick hung his blond head. “We should let him go, Sig.” Vee shoot… That accent—Armand saw another thin blond man, saw his bayonet press the narrow chest…He rubbed his good eye, sweat pouring from beneath his matted hair.
The cop said, “We didn’t actually see him sell them; we could confiscate the tickets and let him go free.” He released Armand’s arm; Armand crossed, pulled it to his chest, pressing the red polyester shirt. PleaseJesusChristplease. His eye threatened to jump out of his head. God, God, for a beer. The cop would stick him in his cruiser, haul him to the fens, beat the shit out of him, dump him. It had happened before.
“We should go,” said Thursty. Vee shoot go.
The cop stuck a huge finger in Armand’s face. “Okay—this time. But I ever catch you scalping again,” he cut the finger across his throat. “Understand, old man?”
Armand nodded, nodded, ticked and nodded, his stomach knotting itself, grateful, pathetically grateful, as the men moved off with his Tickets to Change.
I am an ass. Thorsten Mann watched his apartment-mate hand the tickets to the man at the turnstile. I did nothing; I am an ass. He felt a flag of anger. I could have paid. But he knew that, for Sig, it wasn’t the money. In the three weeks he had known him, Thorsten had learned that Sig worked by his own rules. Strange, incomprehensible rules. American rules? Perhaps. But no other Americans seemed to follow them.
They pushed onto the crowded cement rampway. “Look for Section 16,” Sig told him. “Section 16”—he squinted at the stubs—”Row CC. Got that?”
Thorsten trailed in dark silence, bobbing slightly above the crowd.
“There.” Sig pointed at a sign.
The aisle jammed with people. Thorsten looked left; beyond a metal railing, a few rows of seats descended to the field.
“These are great tickets,” said Sig over his shoulder. “Wonder where the old sot got them.”
Thorsten stared down at the woman beside him. Her hair was bluish red. A natural shade? He doubted it. Nothing here was natural. He pushed himself level with Sig. “We should have paid him.”
“What was he going to do with the money? You saw him.” Sig snorted. “He was so drunk, he couldn’t stand up straight. We did the little bastard a favor. Saved his life. He’d of drunk himself to death.”
Thorsten looked away. The field was empty, except for two Yankees players seated on the grass, stretching their legs. “Can I ask you how you got the–” He raked his mind for the word, pantomimed opening a wallet.
“Badge? Internet.” Sig pointed. “Hey—is that Jeter?”
I should know this Jeter? Thorsten sighed. He’d watched games on TV with Sig, but he couldn’t understand baseball. There were so many rules, and none of them dealt with time. Football—even American football, which Thorsten found tedious—minded the clock. But Baseball? The only time anyone looked at a clock was to schedule the game. Why was he here? Was he so desperate for companionship?
The woman with the strange hair turned up an aisle. Again, Thorsten sighed. The truth was ugly: Three weeks at MIT, and Sig was his sole friend—and that, thanks to the housing office. Thorsten took comfort in his studies, but one could not study all the time.
Sig pointed to the green wall across the field. “See that scoreboard there? It’s still kept by hand. And up there, in the right-field bleachers, there’s one red seat—you can’t see with all these people—but it marks the spot where the late, great Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, whacked the longest home run hit in Fenway. Back in the forties. Man, you wouldn’t believe the history in this place. It’s really OLD.”
Old? Nothing in America was old. The walls of Thorsten’s village had been built before Boston was discovered.
“Section 16,” said Sig. “Cool.” They turned up the aisle. “AA, BB, CC—damn, almost tripped.” He pointed to the far end of the row. “One and two. Wow—perfect, man. Coming through,” he warned a family of five, who stood to let them squeeze by.
The woman winced as Sig tromped on her foot. “Pardon me,” Thorsten mumbled.
Sig grinned and squeezed himself into the very last seat. “Man, this is great. Price is right, too.” He rose again. “How about a beer? I’m buying.”
“I am not old enough,” said Thorsten.
Sig punched his arm, hard. “You crack me up. Two Buds, coming up.” Thorsten sighed as he and the other occupants of Row CC stood once more to let Sig pass.
Thorsten watched the Red Sox players file out of the dugout. His stomach hurt. Perhaps he would leave before Sig returned with his watery American beer and his casual, child-like meanness. Perhaps he’d wander out of this park and down to Com Ave, down to Mass Ave, to the Harvard Bridge which, inexplicably, led to MIT. He would walk to school. Into a student lounge, any lounge. He would find a real friend and shake this yearning to flee this big, cold city. This country. America. It had not been his idea, and he knew it would never be his home.
He leaned forward in the cramped seat. As the announcer called the line-up, Thorsten pictured himself walking over the bridge, stepping on those foolish marks named Smoot. Free.
But…no. Sigh. Thorsten would not leave. Not the park; not MIT. He feared his father’s anger, his mother’s tears. All they had done for their only son; all the sacrifices. He feared his friends’ faces, envy turning to pity. Thorsten would stay. Here, with Sig. With the school. He was an ass.
He sat back; “No-mar Gar-ci-a-PAR-ra!” called the announcer, separating each syllable. Next to him, the large family rose as one to allow Sig to pass.
“Here you are.” Sig handed him a plastic-cupped beer, then pushed past him, sloshing it onto Thorsten’s sleeve. “DOWN IN FRONT!” he bellowed at a couple who had paused in front of Section 16. “Now watch—they’ll play the National Anthem, and those assholes will just stand there. We won’t even get to see Clemens’ first pitch.”
And sure enough, at home plate, an a cappella quartet began, “O-ooo say–”
And then the skies opened, and the sudden angry shriek of wind and hammer of rain drowned them out.
Rain pummels the cruiser’s windshield, rendering the wipers useless.
Jesus—build the friggin’ Ark—no, don’t; my luck today, God’d pair me up with Ellen Degeneres—what the hell, maybe jail’ll give me a mystique, be good for my DJ rep–
Wind twists plastic wrap from plates; rain floods tables.
Tio Angel leans 450 wet pounds against the kitchen doorframe, shouting into the receiver, “Twelve pepperoni and one double-cheese,” while Mama stares over soaked heads, out the window into the back yard, where three weeks’ cooking floats on a long table; in the corner, Cyrena admires her new silver ring and Travis savors the dance of golden eyes, the brine scent of seaweed hair–
Wind beats the glass doors of South Station with watery fists.
Professor Harold Whitcomb sits next to his two wheeled suitcases and studies his bus ticket to Amherst, a land of opportunity, of colleges and universities and an old house with a turret where a slender prisoner of words once lived in solitude; he tips his head back, daydreams a broad, dark shoulder, a taut hip, a dimple: Heart! We will forget him! You and I—tonight–
Rain shakes the North End’s windows like the hand of God.
Miriam Santoro Doucette’s husband George snores in his Barc-a-lounger, remote control rising and falling on his paunch while football players butt each other on TV; in their bedroom she hears Jerry Remy’s radio voice: “Well, Sean, they’re in Detroit tomorrow, so I don’t know when they’ll make it up,” and she runs a ragged blood-red fingernail over the glass face of a photo of her younger self with a tall, thin, wispy-haired man, both wearing baseball caps and huge smiles, and a tear creeps down her cheek–
Rain rages a littered river down Yawkey Way.
The Jesus Saves guy grips his sandwich board like a sail and splashes a squelching sneaker down in the swift-running creek where Brookline meets Yawkey, pinning floating literature to the roadbed, when behind him a voice says, “Here–” and he pivots to a shivering Armand, red bowling shirt plastered to his chest, dirty grey hair plastered to his face, holding out a mess of soggy pamphlets; the Jesus Saves guy takes them gently and says, “It’s okay, Brother, I have more at home,” and Armand hangs his streaming head, hears, “Would you come with me to Burger King?” and unbelieving, fearing, yellowed eyes wide with hope, lifts his face and says, “Sonovabitch–”
Rain whips sideways through the gates of Fenway Park.
“You can’t go out in this, man,” Sig protests, his hand on Thorsten’s shoulder, “let’s wait; it’ll let up and we’ll hit the Cask ‘n’ Flagon,” but Thorsten shakes himself free, steps out alone from the sheltering brick doorway into dangerous wind and cutting rain; he squares skinny shoulders, ignores his flooding shoes, bends his steps toward the ironically-named and Smoot-marked Harvard Bridge, water pouring over him like a baptism, as it does in the Black Forest, and smiles for the first time in three weeks–
Wind howls and rain beats the base paths into mud, foiling the ministrations of the Fenway Park groundskeepers; on the cement of row CC in Section 16, a pair of ticket stubs are ground to pulp by fleeing feet and washed away.
And up in the Right Field bleachers, in the only red seat, a lanky young outfielder and unofficial saint, darkly handsome and astonishingly dry, takes a last long look at the park and turns and winks a perfect eye at the old man on his left. “What do you think?”
“Thanks, kid.” The old man nods his head, his electric white hair untouched by rain or wind. “Now, if you could just do something about the other Curse.”
“Ted and I’ve got a poker game with the Babe tonight. Join us, if you’re game. Get him drunk, let him cheat a little, who knows, maybe he’d think about it. Or–” He shrugs. “Maybe not.”
They shimmer briefly and fade; the old man’s sun-bright smile hangs in the streaming, buffeting air for an instant like the grin of a Cheshire cat–
And they are gone.
© Susan O'Neill
Susan O'Neill (email@example.com) wrote Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam, (Ballantine 2001; Black Swan [UK] 2002; UMass Press 2004), a collection based loosely on her own lost years as an Army nurse in Viet Nam. Kirkus calls it “M*A*S*H, with lots more sex and cursing.”
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