Tale of the Toppled Hurler: A Peter Hartwell Story
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2016 All rights reserved.
For full story to date, visit: http://escondidograpevine.com/a-the-tale-of-the-toppled-hurler-a-peter-hartwell-story/.
Followers of reporter/editor Peter Hartwell have so far heard him relate how the Boston Red Sox lost a bid to be the World Champions of baseball for the first time in eighty-six years because their ace collapsed walking off the mound after pitching six impeccable innings at Yankee Stadium.
Hartwell, in New York for a goodbye party for a Hollywood-bound novelist from Hartsdale, sits down at a lunch counter in Times Square next to a deeply loyal Red Sox fan. Hartwell later boards the train at Penn Station and gets off at Back Bay. The first of a four-game holiday weekend series with the Yankees is about to get under way. But there’s no crack of the bat as Hartwell runs into an old friend.
So, pack on my back, I was about to exit onto Dartmouth Street for my walk to the Auditorium station and, via the Green Line, onto Kenmore Square, my hotel, and the first of a four-game homestand against the New York Yankees over the holiday weekend at Fenway.
Like I said, there was a poke in my back. I pivoted around as I said, “Excuse me…?”
The response was a sadistic smile worn by none other than my old friend Russell. His hand was in the hip pocket of his trademark tan leather jacket and a tight circle pressed out from there toward me, which I took to be the muzzle of his gun.
“Long time no see,” I said, and in fact it had been months since I escaped from him at the toll booth in New Rochelle. “What is it this time?”
“You’ll have to ask my partner,” he said.
He prodded me out of the station and onto Dartmouth Street, where he’d somehow found a parking space. “Anything look familiar?” he said.
There it was, my Mustang, stolen so brazenly from the parking garage at Route 128; my sleek new car that replaced the other one that this same Russell had heisted and ditched in the drink at Provincetown.
He took Dartmouth Street to Columbus Avenue and hopped on the Mass Pike. He exited at Brighton/Cambridge and soon hit Soldiers Field Road and pulled into the driveway at the Henderson Boat House, headquarters for the Northeastern University crew, stopping on the grass a few yards along and we were facing the Charles River.
A large man in a gray-on-gray striped suit, white shirt and white necktie stood in the mist holding an umbrella over his head. He was balding, around six feet tall. His waist must’ve been fifty-something. Nearby, the driver’s side door of a sleek, new, gray, two-door Infiniti was open, the courtesy light bathing the interior in a warm amber. Russell waltzed me by the fat guy, hit a lever that slid the front passenger seat fully forward and shoved me through into the rear. Then he climbed back into my Mustang and sped off toward town, leaving twin furrows of tire tracks in the wet grass.
His nose whistling, the large man jiggled himself behind the wheel of the Infiniti and closed the door. I could hear the locks click shut.
“Before I forget,” he said, reaching to his right and producing a roll of silver-gray duct tape from a small paper bag. “Give me your hands.”
I knew this guy from before. I hadn’t gotten a close look at him yet tonight, but the accent alone gave him away: North End/Revere/Everett, an exaggerated Boston-ese to my sensitive Hartsdale ear, but deep and resonant, a baritone. It was Russell’s same partner from before; they were still teamed up.
The fat man removed the plastic outer wrap from the roll of tape and twisted a parcel of it around my wrists. He reached into the glove compartment, extracted a Swiss army knife and sliced off what was left.
“Now lean back and put your ankles between the seats,” he said.
I did as I was told, placing my feet on the console between the bucket seats in front. He turned a dozen loops of tape around them. Then, as if inspired, he twisted a long tail around the ankles and tied a half dozen knots in it.
“If you don’t mind,” he added, when that was done, “please bring your arms forward.”
With that, he taped my wrists to my ankles and turned me into a human rocking chair. My body sank into the soft leather refuge of the back seat and my spine stretched. It actually gave me a pleasant tingling sensation.
The fat man adjusted the rear view mirror and checked me out in the reflection. Then he turned down both front visors, flipped up flaps on each to reveal mirrors lit by tiny amber bulbs. He angled the mirrors and the rear view at one another, affording me infinitely repeated views of his eyes. He looked satisfied and triumphant that I was securely fastened and his plan had begun to turn the corner.
“You know why you’re here, right?” he said.
“You tell me.”
“Start with this,” he said. “Where did you have lunch?”
“Lunch,” I said. “Lunch…”
I wanted my tone to reflect that if my hands were unglued, I’d be stroking my chin with my thumb and index finger, thinking this lunch matter over to make sure I answered correctly.
“I know I could think a lot straighter over a hot bowl of chili right now,” I said and, aiming for his Achilles heel, added, “Speaking of which, does the idea of a bite to eat resonate at all with you at this time?”
“I still have a few questions,” the fat man said.
“Fire away,” I said. “Ask all you want. Ask until you’re blue in the face. Shoot me, if you have to.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Now, the last lunch you had before arriving here, where did you have it? Where was it you ate lunch?”
I gazed out the window at the rain and the dark clouds to the east.
“You were in New York at lunchtime,” the fat man said. “You were in Times Square.”
“If you already know,” I replied, “what are you asking me for?”
“Say it,” the fat man demanded. “The HoJo’s…a Willie Gee, even though they call it a Broadway Double Decker. The crowded counter, the wallpaper, Simple Simon, the pie man. Guy dressed in black on your right.”
“So…?” I said.
“You knew he was a major member of the Nation, right?”
“Not until he told me he wore his Sox cap all over New York City.”
“So you were there,” the fat man said “Did you catch a name?”
“A name?” I said.
“The name of the guy at the HoJo’s counter,” the fat man demanded. “The one you ate lunch with.”
“Oh, him,” I said. “A cook named Joel said the guy went by the name of Sunny.”
“See?” said the fat man.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Don’t you get it?” the fat man said. “Sonny…? You were there with him. We have eyes all over the place.” ,
“I don’t get it,” I said. “What is there to be gotten?”
The fat man shook his head. “That sounds like an old reporter’s trick,” he said, “asking when you already know the answer….so I end up confirming it for you.”
“Nothing of the sort,” I said.
The rain picked up. I asked him to check the status of the Sox game.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If it’s raining here on Storrow Drive, you can be sure it’s raining at Fenway. Rain delay. No current action.”
“Thank for the fill,” I said. “But how about what the score was before they suspended play?”
“If I could figure out this radio, I might be able to,” he said. “But, alas.”
I could not imagine that the technology baffled him so much that he couldn’t find WEEI-AM, as sophisticated as his satellite radio was. He was being disingenuous just to torture me, I decided. I resolved not to give him the satisfaction of thinking he was inflicting pain.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll dial up my colleague Jimmy Clancy again and ask him. No problem.”
I asked the fat man to fish the cell phone out of the zippered upper compartment of my windbreaker, what with my own hands immobilized, then to hit eleven on the speed dial and put the speaker on high.
He turned around and examined me. Then he patted me down, unzipped the big pocket that spanned the chest of my windbreaker, rooted around in there and finally plucked out my phone.
He bounced it in his hand a couple of times and then labored to squeeze himself out of the car. He left the door open. The keys dangled tantalizingly in the ignition. I writhed in an attempt to vault over the backrest and extract the key chain with my mouth. The fat man waddled toward the water. He stopped and, then, like a discus thrower, whirled around and flung the phone into the river.
“How’s that again?” he said when he returned.
“No problem, is what I was saying,” I answered. “I’ll summon Jimmy up and get a score.”
The fat man looked at me like I was ready for a long stay at MacLean or any number of other fine psychiatric hospitals in Greater Boston. “I just tossed your phone. You didn’t notice?” he said.
I affected a look of deep concentration and leaned my head to the right. I asked the fat man for quiet. As best as I could, all taped up, I closed my fist and held it toward my mouth like a microphone. I cupped my other hand and reached it toward my right ear. “Shhh…” I whispered to the fat man. “Jimmy’s coming in on the mojo wire.”
“The score is two-to-two,” I announced. “They’re in a long rain delay, just like you said. If they resume play, it’ll be no one on and one out in the bottom of the third.”
When the rain passed, I closed my eyes again and, slapping a look of intense concentration on my face, cupped my ear again, arched my eyebrows in reaction to what I was hearing, and then announced that Jimmy said the game was resuming. My back actually felt good, gently stretched at this point, the spine awakening with a buildup of chi.
“So let me ask you again,” I said. “What is this story you think I have?”
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about all that before we say goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye?” I said. “As in the plan is I’ll be dead? Well, take all the time you need. Shoot me now if you want.”
I focused my mind on using every second to figure out how to finagle myself from this mess.
The fat man fiddled with the radio and landed on all-news-all-the-time, Sirius 111/XM 11. A warehouse had blown up in Dayton, Ohio and–what was that again?–a Nick something had nearly died from eating mushrooms he himself had picked in the woods, so-called Jack O’Lanterns.
“Nick who?” I asked the fat man.
He ignored me and slugged the dial to KGAO, the golden age of opera, Sirius 13 and XM 66. He looked lost in “La Traviata.”
I heard whirring in my brain. Someone named Nick something, with enough celebrity status to make the news by getting sick. I closed my eyes and saw Jimmy. His lips were moving, but I could not decipher what he was saying.
The fat man kept time by tapping the left hip pocket of his huge suit jacket. At the end of the aria, “Di Provenza il mar,” he lowered the volume.
“Believe me,” I said, “if it means my life, the hell with the story. Anyway, how would you explain what happened to me at confession?”
The fat man opened the glove box and pulled out his rosary beads. He polished each bead between his fingers and thumb.
“To be honest,” he said, “I don’t know which way I come out on top. If I got it all off my chest now, I’d have to kill you because you’d know the truth. On the other hand, maybe you actually do know nothing, like you say. In which case, I could drop the whole thing entirely.”
“Dropping the whole thing entirely sounds like a win-win to me,” I said.
I told him he’d save himself a considerable number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers if he let me go. I cared less and less about bothering the readers with another stupid story, I said.
The fat man rubbed the beads and gazed upward. I asked the Lord above to leave him mystified like this long enough for me to loose my bounds, reach into that jacket pocket of his and, before he realized it, pull the gun out of there and shoot my way to an escape.
“You could always piece it together if I let you go,” he said.
“But you brought me here because I already have it,” I said.
I started in on my breathing again, this time taking the fresh late-night air off the Charles through my nose and filling up, asking the Almighty to answer my final prayers: One, that I’d wheedle the tale out of the fat man; two, that Jimmy would hear enough of it from here through some telepathic magic to pull the whole thing together for the next edition on Thursday; and, finally, that I’d be back in the newsroom to edit it.
But if my death tonight was inevitable, I would use the time remaining to surrender and accept, connect with the Almighty and beseech Him to bring me under His tent for all eternity. Or, He could always help me engineer a way out, short of a gunshot to the cerebellum. I doubted that even escape artist Harry Houdini could extricate himself from a gluey cage like mine.
“Hashem,” I said, invoking the Almighty’s gender-neutral moniker, “I am sorry to have not taken you more deeply into my life over the years. And here I am, in desperation, asking if I can come be by your side now, forever.”
I sat quietly and searched for grounds for hope. The best that bubbled up was to goad the fat man into pulling out his piece so I could lunge for it, capture it, and point it at his face, even while trussed up like a newly-killed buck.
The farm report came over on Sirius/XM 4-1-1. The announcement of a methane alternative fuel rally caught my attention. It was to take place in a Virginia cow pasture at 11 that morning. I asked the fat man if he would put the car in gear and point us in that direction.
“We could get there in time if we left now,” I said.
“I’ll fart in the gas tank myself,” he said.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Here comes Jimmy.”
“Jimmy coming to you over some air current…?” he said. “Sure.”
He made a fist with his left hand and held it to his mouth. He cupped his right ear. “Calling all cars,” he said. “Calling all cars.”
“Shhh…” I acted as if Jimmy was on the line and I repeated what I would have wanted him to say. “’I condemn his soul to the fires of hell’? Who said that? The monsignor? About who? McSweeney?”
I thanked him and hung up.
“Jimmy’s found the father,” I called to the fat man. “In the Berkshires. Shattuckville. He wants to see you as soon as possible.”
I made it appear that the padre’s exile to a mountain village took place because he not only had eyes for our overweight friend, but was also caught demonstrating his affection for a bevy of other altar boys in South Boston. McSweeney still had his frock, though.
The fat man dialed up some sort of call-in show. “We’ve got the mayor of Casterbridge on the line?” the host was saying. “Excuse me, the Lord Mayor of Casterbridge. Go ahead, my Lord, you’re on Vent, Eleven Ten.”
“Let’s go see the padre,” I said over the radio patter.
The fat man checked his wrist and discovered he was not wearing a watch. He was pushing buttons all over the dial, setting off a chaotic and dissonant cacophony like an off-key buzz saw.
“By the time we get there, he’ll be asleep,” the fat man said.
“I think that’s the point,” I said.
I suggested that the blessed father was dreaming as we spoke of the pleasant surprise and delight of hearing the fat man tiptoe into the bedroom and crawl under the covers beside him. I’d wait in the car all night. What I didn’t mention was that when the padre emerged to pick up his morning paper, I’d beat the window with my feet to get his attention and urge him to talk his former altar boy into letting me go. Tell him that Jimmy’s got the story already, anyway, I would say.
The fat man reached into his jacket pocket.
“Stop struggling and give in,” I urged him. “I’m sick of waiting.”
Instead of the gun, though, he pulled out his phone. I thought I heard the name Russell on the voice mail. The fat man left a message how we were waiting still at the designated spot, hard by the Huskies’ boat house.
“Get over here,” he said. “Now.”
He followed it up with a text.
“The College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts,” I said, oozing the name out as if I was smooshing a banana cream pie in his face. “How’d that work out for you?”
I knew from our last encounter, when I smoked out that he’d killed my lover Jeannie Doveman, that if there was any way to get the fat man’s goat, it was to disparage his experience at his would-be alma mater, The College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he’d dropped out second semester freshman year to apprentice for some gang out of Revere. In doing so, he gave up a four-year scholarship.
“It’s a great school, no question,” I said, taunting him, “and there you were on a free ride? What kind of moron would quit?”
Instead of telling me to drop it, he set to musing about how life might have taken a different turn if he’d earned his degree, and how he wouldn’t likely be sitting here now in a car by the river waiting for Russell.
“But I wouldn’t be rich,” he said. “Not like this. Not if I became an English professor or something somewhere. They’re all a bunch of phonies, anyway.”
“Snubbing a degree from The College of The Holy Cross — full ride? Holy Cross?”
“You do know why I brought you here,” he said again.
“Like I said before, you tell me.”
“You either kill that story or Russell kills you.
Bruce Kauffman was a longtime North County Times editor and writer with emphasis on business and sports. He now operates a writing consultancy and authors creative works. This is is from his latest effort, a work in progress, exclusively at The Grapevine. For more visit Oceanside Scribe.