Tale of the Toppled Hurler: A Peter Hartwell Story
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2017 All rights reserved.
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Peter Hartwell at last is in the driver’s seat, having turned the tables so that the fat man becomes his prisoner. They are driving toward Boston.
“Would you tune in the Opera Channel?” my passenger said.
What with all my futile attempts to get him to bring up the score of the ball game, I fiddled away with the radio dials and then announced, “Can’t seem to locate it.”
I acted as if the array of controls and dials and buttons and knobs so bedazzled me I was powerless to zero in at will on a certain niche within a grooved striation, if you know what I mean, never mind a broad band a la the Opera Channel itself. I told him that now I understood how he had so much trouble finding a Red Sox score on this thing, never mind the game itself on AM radio.
Finally, accidentally and on purpose, I tripped across his channel and “Carmen” was on, one of his favorites. He sang along in what to my untutored ear sounded like half-decent French.
As the crescendo rose, and as Don Jose escalated his effort to win back the eponymous gypsy girl from the bullfighter she now loved, the fat man grew more and more animated. Bobbing and weaving with his head, con brio and gusto, he looked like a conductor. I wanted to look behind his back to see him conduct with his hands and wrists, bound up as they were in the gluey cuffs of the fresh duct tape.
The infuriated Don Jose was about to stab Carmen, his one-time inamorata, to death. Just at the moment before the climax, I punched in the number one-fifty-four at random and picked up the traffic report out of Phoenix, Arizona.
“What the hell are you doing?” He was yelling at me. “That’s ‘Carmen.’ The biggest scene in the whole show. Traffic in Phoenix? Wake up, Mr. Hartwell. We’re in New England.”
“Quiet,” I said, hiking the volume. “Not Phoenix,” I added, raising my voice to be heard over the radio. “Scottsdale. I’m interested in Scottsdale.”
I let it go on until it was reported that traffic along Interstate 8 was moving smoothly, even as it crossed smack dab through downtown Phoenix.
“Hey, what’s the opposite of opera?” I asked him after a while.
“What the hell kind of a question is that?” he said.
“Just a question.”
“I don’t know the answer,” he said.
“Come on,” I urged him, “What don’t you especially like, music wise?”
“Why are you asking me this? I still don’t know,” he said. He paused and thought it over, recognized what he particularly disliked and looked like he wanted to share this with me, forgetting he might be about to fall for the ruse.
“Maybe what they call Old-Timey, out of the Appalachians,” he volunteered. “We had to listen to it in class at Holy Cross. It was like a screech. I remember writing just that in the mid-term exam, first semester freshman year. Made you really appreciate the Gregorian chants.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said. “In fact, I happen to have run across this one particular notch I’m sure you’ll really enjoy.”
I keyed in the codes to locate a limb of the country network tree, the Hill Music/Tennessee/Kentucky notch channel, Depression era, and then I turned up the volume. It reminded me of the stuff they played in an attempt to drive those Branch Davidians out of their fortress in Waco, Texas. Better to surrender than be driven insane by the harshness and dissonance and screeches.
At this moment, we were hearing a melody and a lyric about back-breaking work in the bowels of the coal mines. “Those miners,” I said, gratuitously. “They can’t catch a break.”
The possibilities were endless. I would beam him a steady diet of Old Timey and monitor changes in his mood and demeanor. Just for my own amusement, I would report those reactions to the far man contemporaneously. It’d drive him crazy, make him vulnerable for sure. He had nowhere to run. I turned the volume up even more, wondering how much more of it I could take myself.
Finally, I hit the bar that brought us to the Opera Channel, which was now playing “The Barber of Seville.” The fat man was singing along – “Figaro, Figaro” – a big smile on his face. At which point, I flipped back to Old Timey. The violin in this particular number about unrequited love sounded like a buzz saw outside your open window at five in the morning.
By now, I was not just punishing the fat man with the Old Timey, but myself as well. So I made straight way for the mind-teasing Faith and Doubt Network, hoping they’d be discussing exiled priests in the Berkshires, a la Father McSweeney, once of South Boston and now of the mountain village of Shattuckville, Mass.
“How are you going to hear anything coming in from Jimmy with this racket playing?” the fat man yelled out.
The fat man called out his question even more loudly, as I leaned over to lower the volume.
“Jimmy?” I said. “Jimmy comes on in five minutes.”
I turned the sound back up. When something came on that he could nest within in great pleasure, like Frank Sinatra’s classics from the great American song book, I’d give him ten seconds or so of revelry and bang up something else, like now, as I headed toward daily Talmud study on Faith and Doubt.
When I switched back to his beloved Rossini notch, he resumed conducting and singing the arias. He was beaming, enjoying this more and more, which I took as my cue to shut the radio off.
“Hey!” he protested.
“Jimmy’s calling,” I explained with a shrug. “Right on schedule.”
I steered with my right hand and pulled an imaginary set of headphones over my ears, adjusting them and the mic that was attached.
“All set,” I said, cupping my left ear. Nodding, I added, “OK…yeah…ah-ha…great…Please check it. But I am thinking 1986, Shea Stadium.”
Our signal vanished as I exited the Southeast Expressway near the giant landmark Boston Gas tanks, painted with the bold and lilting strokes of the artist, Sister Corita. I made my way to the other side of the highway and the Howard Johnson’s Plaza. I maneuvered the sad, littered, pot-holed side streets and finally pulled into the HoJo’s parking lot. I stopped alongside an apron of grass, beyond which shrubbery disguised a chain-link fence that lined the perimeters of the plaza.
I got out of the car, opened the passenger’s door, unlatched his seat belt and crouched, turning his frame toward me. Then I slid my forearms under his shoulders and nudged him out the door. I dragged him over to the strip of grass that edged the shrubbery and put him down as gingerly as I could.
Sifting his cell phone from his pants, I dialed up 9-1-1 to report my Mustang stolen, and peeled away, hoping I’d heard correctly that the tribute to the late Sammy Saperstein and his equally community-spirited widow, Judith Naomi Saperstein, would indeed be taking place this weekend somewhere in Swampscott.
I left the HoJo’s Plaza for the access road and the on-ramp for 93 North. A Mustang was coming the other way. It was the spitting image of my car, and for good reason: It was my car. Down to the donut Russell installed when the full-fledged tire was shredded with the ammo I fired from the fat man’s Glock.
I caught a glimpse of Marie, who looked disheveled and angry. It was clear from her expression that she didn’t want to be here. She made sure I was looking as she puffed out her tummy and formed a wide semi-circle with her arms a foot out from her waist. I took it as her request for me to confirm that the fat man was nearby. I tossed my head over my left shoulder and mouthed “HoJo’s” as she bounced by.
I got on the ramp for 93, northbound, and then followed old Route One through East Boston and into Revere. A few miles north, I stopped at a shopping center with a Target. The glass doors slid open for my bee line to the men’s room, where I stripped, scrubbed and rinsed, making myself presentable enough to cruise the floor. I scrubbed with vigor to rid my body of the stale and foul odor that lingered from my sweat melding with my fear.
I tossed the windbreaker and my underwear and socks in the trash and put my weathered chinos and sports shirt back on, along with my high top cross- training sneakers, then strode commando-style to the men’s clothing section at the far corner of the store. I picked out another pair of khaki trousers, a blue pin-striped dress shirt, a leather belt in a russet tone, a pair of casual brown shoes, and a new windbreaker just like my old one, except in blue, with a zippered compartment across the chest and a hood, and the insides lined with a layer of soft cotton in red. It was perfect for Fenway at this time of year.
I collected underwear, socks, soap, shampoo, a toothbrush, a fluffy towel, a razor, and travel sizes of toothpaste, floss and mouthwash. I paid and made my way straight back to the rest room, where I hung my shopping bags on a hook on the inside door of a toilet stall. I shook myself and lined up once again at the sink for an even more thorough going-over.
On the way out of the store, I stopped at a rack of free publications to find the Swampy Shopper, which listed community events for the week amid a flurry of garage sale ads and the like.
To my relief, it turned out that this indeed was the day for the dedication of the Saperstein center at a synagogue called Beth Mira, which I found out translates to Daughters of the Sea. I headed north for Hardy Road and on into the middle of town. Not far away was the synagogue, the lot full to capacity and the side streets lined with cars on both sides. When I at last found a spot, it was about a mile away and people were already leaving the ceremonies. I hustled uphill toward the new building. A traffic jam of departing cars was thickening.
My eye caught a glint of light. I turned toward it and saw it reflecting off the long, silky, raven hair of a woman at the front door of the new building, who was hugging a straggler from the crowd goodbye. Sparks of sunlight bounced off the burnished silver letters that jutted from the outside wall under a portico at the entrance. They spelled out, “The Naomi and Samuel Saperstein Center for Peace and Social Justice.”
I was wiping beads of sweat from my forehead from my hurried walk as I approached the woman.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Might you know where to find Mrs. Saperstein?”
She smiled, extended her hand and said, “I’m Naomi Saperstein.” Her handshake was warm and reassuring. “How can I help you?”
Just then, my Mustang careened around the corner and slammed to a halt at the walkway leading to the new building. Russell popped out, Glock in hand, and waved it at us. “All of you,” he said. “Freeze.”
The showdown at the temple unfolds.
The fat man dribbled out of the passenger side. Russell reached into a pocket of his tan trench coat, pulled out another Glock, and slid it over the roof of the car to the fat man. I thought I saw a copy of the Swampy Shopper peering from the same gun pocket. The fat man turned toward us, managed a half-squat and, eyes on the gun sight, rotated in a semi-circle. A man approached from the periphery. He was elegantly dressed in a beautifully cut tan suit, a pale pink Oxford shirt, a subdued paisley necktie in tones of silver and powder blue, and a plain black yarmulke affixed to his head with two bobby pins. The fat man aimed the gun at him.
Russell kept his eye on me and Mrs. Saperstein. Marie was taking in the scene through the rear windshield of my car. The fat man held his gun on the well-clad fellow in the suit.
“Hi,” he called out to me, as if nothing had happened. “I’m Sonny.” He gestured toward Mrs. Saperstein. “She’s my Mom.”
“Mom?” I said. “Her kid’s name is Sumner. It was in all the papers.”
“Nobody calls him that,” Naomi said. “He’s always been Sonny.”
“Quiet down,” Russell said.
“Excuse me,” I said after a while, raising my hand. “May I ask just one question?”
“OK,” Russell shrugged. “Be my guest,”
“What are you going to do with us now?”
The fat man called out that all three of us knew too much at this point, and how could we be trusted not to turn them in. “An impasse,” he said. “It’s either you or us, I guess.”
A siren pealed in the distance, giving me hope. In just seconds, siren screaming and lights flashing, a Swampscott Police Department squad car screeched to a stop at the scene. Both front doors opened and two uniforms squatted behind them for cover.
“Freeze,” one called out. “And drop your weapons.”
“No, you freeze and drop your weapons,” Russell said.
The passenger door of my Mustang flew open and Marie jumped out and made a run for it. She did not get far before Russell caught her, grabbed her arm and wrapped one of his around her neck. “If you don’t let us all go,” he called to the officers, “she gets it.”
“Him, too,” the fat man chimed in, leveling his Glock at Sonny’s forehead.
“You’d prefer murder charges to a stolen car rap?” one of the officers called out, looking over at the Mustang.
My car looked beat up and forlorn. There were deep scratches and dents where it had scraped along the scrub pine after I’d shot out the tire. The donut on the front made the car appear to tilt downward and to the right.
In a flash, two more patrol cars arrived. Cops in uniform jumped out and stationed themselves behind the open doors, guns drawn. They pointed at the fat man and at Russell, whose own weapon was pressed against Marie’s temple.
A helicopter bleated from a distance, coming closer to us from the general direction of Logan airport in East Boston. Through a loudspeaker from above, over the chop of the rotors, a voice commanded, “Give it up, You’ll never get out of here.”
One squad car after another raced to the scene, skidding into place. Emergency roof lights flashing, they formed a semi-circle around us. The front and rear doors opened and cops hunkered behind them for cover, hoisting sidearms and rifles.
Russell called out, “You all back off and let us go and nobody gets hurt.”
Everyone was still now, a tableau frozen in the pulse of the strobe lights from the squad cars. The helicopter hovered in place. The only sound was the chop of the craft’s rotor.
Then a cop scurried low to the ground to the back of a patrol car. She popped the trunk and extracted a sleek rifle with a fancy scope. She settled there and pointed the weapon at Russell. Another officer several yards away did the same, emerging with an identical rifle, a marksman’s weapon or maybe a sniper’s, suitable for long-range.
“Our shooters are ready,” an officer cried out. “Which finger would you least like to lose?”
You could hear an electronic throb, a single beat. Everyone looked around for the source of it. Then an amplified voice called out, “Drop your weapons, now.” I looked and saw someone in uniform with a red bullhorn straddling the open doorway of the helicopter. Russell tightened his grip on Marie’s neck and twisted the point of the Glock into her ear.
“You leave us alone, and no one gets hurt,” Russell called out. “Leave, now.”
The chopper took off in a wide circle, and, in the distance, started to dive in degrees until it buzzed just above the peaked roof of the synagogue. Russell ducked and lost his grip on Marie, who fell face forward onto the ground. He rolled her over and held the gun at her temple and dragged her upright. He looked skyward and cried out as if they could hear him in the helicopter, “Cease and desist and no one gets hurt. Let us go. Please leave the premises now.”
The chopper circled and returned, so close it could trim Russell’s hair. This time, he looked up and fired. The helicopter dodged it, and hovered. The officer at the open chopper door shot a bull’s eye to the very center of Russell’s skull, where the two hemispheres meet. His head flew open like a watermelon dropped ten stories. Marie, hysterical, was screaming and crying and running in circles around the body.
A police officer approached her as the rifles on the perimeter turned toward the fat man. Marie ran into the officer’s arms and was given a bottle of water and draped in a gray blanket with a likeness of a Swampscott p.d. badge in blue on it. Marie sat in the rear of a cruiser and the door was left open. Now and then, Marie would break into loud sobs and startle us. Russell’s body lay twisted on the grass; the police not moving toward it as the fat man taunted us with his Glock subcompact.
“Yes,” Sonny replied.
“Boston, then Queens?”
He looked puzzled by his own question. For why would Sunny Petrocino, avenging son of a hit by the fat man, be here now at Temple Beth Mira for the dedication of the Samuel and Naomi Saperstein Center for Peace and Social Justice?
“No,” said Sonny. “Sonny Saperstein.”
“But the Saperstein kid is named Sumner,” the fat man said.
“No one calls him that,” Mrs. Saperstein said.
My mind was drawing a map with fuzzy outlines and vague dots that I fought to bring into focus: That story on the radio the fat man did not want me to hear, the one about someone almost croaking from wild mushrooms? A Nick something? Might he have eaten Jack O’ Lanterns, which look just like chanterelles to the uninitiated, as Sunny told me that day at the HoJo’s in Times Square?
“Jack O’ Lantern,” I whispered in the fat man’s direction. “Jack O’ Lantern.”
The fat man jerked straight up and the suddenness of it nearly popped the gun from his hand.
I flashed on how Jimmy was mouthing something to me back at the Charles River; how I could not quite tell what it was. As this came in, another picture began to form, fuzzy at first, and morphing into the shape of the letters that peered from the cover of the paperback in the back pocket of Joel the cook’s checkered work trousers. I let my mind drift on its own for the blanks to fillin. “‘The Horse Whisperer,'” I said to the fat man. “A Nick something wrote it, or am I wrong? You didn’t want me to hear about it on the radio.
Joel didn’t say anything — who needs trouble from you? — but left a clue in his pants. Hard to tell the difference between Jacks and chanterelles,” I said. “Nicholas Evans, was it? Nicholas Evans, author, ‘The Horse Whisperer,’ who mistakes Jack O’ Lanterns for chanterelles?”
The fat man’s his eyes were whirling like kaleidoscopesw now, but his finger stayed securely on the trigger.
“You approached Plaid Petey,” I went on, “and he refused to go along. It surprised you how angry he got.
“You even tried the idea out on Sammy, your old pal,” I said. ” To you, he was still in the game, just like the old days…Wonderland, Suffolk Downs, Raynham….up for a quick killing as always. And his investment would be so modest; just so you’d have your working capital. But like with Petey, something set him off. And both of them turn up dead.”
The fat man’s eyes widened.
I continued: “You told Sammy and Petey it was a lock, foolproof, the profits hundreds of times the investment. For Sammy, you’d even throw in your doughy Cape Cod empire. Who needs to worry about warding off competition from the wildly-popular beignet?
“But you enraged those two, so much so you were sure they were going to blow the whistle. They had to go.
“Your big mistake was underestimating just how rabid Red Sox Nation they were.”
“The Red Sox?” the fat man said. “What do the Red Sox have to do with it?”
“You leaned on Petey and Sammy to bet against the Red Sox. To make it a sure thing, you put Jacks in Willie’s last sandwich.”
The fat man’s knees buckled and Sonny lunged for the gun. He knocked it to the ground from the fat man’s grasp, dove for it, got there first, and tossed it ten feet away. The cops swept in immediately. They handcuffed the fat man and dragged him off. “It wasn’t supposed to kill him,” he protested, calling at me over his shoulder. “Just slow him down.”
When the dust cleared, a uniformed sergeant from the Swampscott force sidled up to me and introduced himself. He gestured toward a young man on the perimeter in a security guard uniform and a handsome tan trench coat. “That one there look familiar?” he asked me.
I squinted in that direction. Was it not the messenger in the rain at the Charles River with Russell’s cell phone and a trove of texts and voice mails from the fat man about the latter’s whereabouts?
“That’s the kid showed up by the river,” I said. “I got enough of a glimpse of him through the car window. I was taped up in the shape of a bow at the time.”
“It’s my kid,” said the sergeant. “Roger. He was working security at Fenway when the umpires ordered him to seize Russell’s phone.”
“He must’ve called in what he saw there at the river?”
“Of course,” said he dad. “Boston said it sounded like a peaceful, personal, if sadomasochistic, liaison, and besides there’d been a huge pileup at the B.U. Bridge. And here we are. Guys like e Fat Man and Russell always end up falling off some cliff or other.”
We turned at the sound of a tow truck’s winch hauling my battered Mustang aboard, off to be combed through for evidence. I directed a second truck down the street a mile for the Infiniti with the blown front windshield. The fat man was sitting in the rear of a Swampscott patrol car, wrists cuffed behind his back; sullen, sweaty and shocked.
I checked in with Jimmy on the sergeant’s cell phone and, as it happened, he was on the Lynnway and only minutes from us here at the temple. Sonny Saperstein and his mom, the beautiful Naomi Saperstein, walked toward me across the lawn and the three of us embraced, forming a triangle, holding each other around the shoulders and taking some deep inhales and exhales together, after which we pronounced “Baruch Atau,” seemingly in unison, thank you for saving us from the unctuous evil of the fat man, the now-ruined ex-ruler of a formidable Cape Cod donut chain, and his dead compadre, Russell.
Sonny and I hugged separately and then Naomi and I did, too. He offered her an arm and escorted her to the street and a Town Car that had pulled up and stopped. The driver got out and held the door open. Mrs. Saperstein gave me a wave and climbed in. “See you at the game,” she said with a smile.
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.