(Editor’s Note: Author Bruce Kauffman died last week at his home in National City. A longtime journalist with the North County Times at Escondido and San Marcos, and before that CNN, Bruce was born in Massachusetts and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison while taking a BA at Case Western Reserve University and MA at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Locally, he specialized in business coverage although he covered a variety of other topics including baseball, education and media issues. A great guy, and great friend, he will be sorely missed. Read more about him, here.
Bruce wrote this novella, posting it a chapter at a time on a serial basis at The Grapevine, a’la Charles Dickens. It is prexented here in it’s entirety and also is available at https://escondidograpevine.com/a-the-tale-of-the-toppled-hurler-a-peter-hartwell-story/…Dan Weisman)
The Tale of the Toppled Hurler
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2016. All rights reserved.
Willie Gillante took the mound to pitch the game that would decide if the dream gets dashed or faith is rewarded. If Willie and his precious Red Sox lost tonight, their exhausting season-long march to the world championship of baseball would be over, and the hope gone that the crown would finally come to Boston for the first time in a long eighty-six years.
The night was crisp and cool and the climate alien: Yankee Stadium, the Bronx, New York City, New York. The date was October 17, 2004. All the Yankees needed was one win over the next four games.
Willie rubbed his hand in the pocket of his glove, pounded his fist in it, caught a lob from catcher Beannie Brennan, took his glove off, tucked it under his left arm, rubbed the ball up with both hands, put the glove back on, went to his mouth with his fingers, gripped the ball behind his back at waist level, reared back, pointed his elbow toward home as if to guide the ball, cocked his wrist like he was pulling back the hammer of a gun and rifled a missile into Beannie’s mitt.
Even from way back in the recesses of the press box, where I sat, you could hear the ball sizzle when it left Willie’s hand. Now I don’t mean to leave the impression that I’m in the press section working the baseball beat for the Boston Globe or the Patriot Ledger, covering the ball club in a deep and comprehensive way, day-in and day-out, home and away, all over the country. No, I’m from a hometown weekly in a place called Hartsdale, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and we cover baseball the same way as everything else, which is local angle, local angle, local angle; all Hartsdale, all the time.
And Willie Gillante is major local angle. He happens to be a Hartsdalian, and not as some nouveau riche ballplayer who settled there with his long-term contract and built a mansion on a hill with a view of the sea. No, Willie is a guy who’s from the town in the same sense that I am: Raised there, hardly ever left, and lives there still, not far from the house he grew up in. He roots his kids on at Little League games and loads up on pancakes like everyone else at the Rotary Club’s all-you-can-eat breakfast the first Saturday in February to benefit the high school scholarship fund.
My paper is called the Hartsdale News, Arts and Leisure Weekly. The town is near Sandwich and Mashpee, not far from the Cape Cod Canal and the Sagamore Bridge, if you know the Cape at all. My name, by the way, is Hartwell, Peter Hartwell. Officially, they call me the editor, which actually means I do whatever has to be done, whether I like it or not.
The other thing that might interest you is that Willie and I have known each other since I guess around sixth grade. We were graduated from Hartsdale High in the same class and I interviewed him many times back then as the sports reporter for HighLights, the school newspaper.
I don’t want to give you the idea that we hung out a lot together or were best buddies or anything, but we did get invited to some of the same parties and we’d hobnob and talk about school and sports and so on, scholastic and pro. Also, our parents have been friends for ages.
Covering a few games a year at Fenway Park and now, this contest in New York, is one of the most pleasant things about my job. Tonight, though, like everyone else in the Red Sox Nation, I was riddled with a raging anxiety that, even with Willie on the mound, you never know what could go wrong.
Another nice thing about my job, by the way, is covering music, emphasis again on the strong hometown angle. This beat had me following around one homegrown band that made it big beyond belief. I’m talking about a group you surely have heard of called Harry Hardcore and the Saints. Need I say more?
Red Sox manager Bob McChesney and Yankees’ skipper Arnold Freen were exchanging line-up cards at home plate and going over the ground rules with an umpiring crew headed by Thor Hilverson. You could hear the anxious murmuring in the seats behind the visitors’ dugout, where a klatsch of Sox fans sat dressed in the team regalia. They sounded hopeful, frightened, and full of prayer. That it could end like this, in New York, swept four games in a row, with the pennant at stake, along with a trip to the World Series, was unthinkable.
A group of nuns from Boston sat in their own section in the right field stands. They rubbed their rosary beads and entreated the Almighty to rain down the blessing of just this one Red Sox victory tonight; just this one for now. They could at least thank the Lord above that the great Willie Gee (jee, as in jee-ahnt-ee) was on the mound as starting pitcher. As I sat here, chronicler of the biggest game of the year, I fluttered between faith and doubt.
Thirteen years ago, in April of 1991, I’d been there, this time at Fenway Park, when Willie pitched his very first major league game. He gave up just three hits and one run in eight innings and got credit for the four-to-one win over the Baltimore Orioles. The story led our paper that week: “Gee,” read the headline, corny as it was. “A Hart-ening Start.”
Since that day, Willie has won 224 games and lost only 92. This year, he leads the league with a keen earned run average of 2.62. (Sorry for assuming everyone’s as hard-core a fan as me, but earned run average, or e.r.a., is the measure of how many runs a pitcher allows per nine innings. Not to get too technical, but the earned run average does not factor in runs scored by players who’d reached base by way of a walk, an error, or being hit by a pitch—a so-called unearned trip to first.)
A New York City transit police officer, a tenor, sang the Star Spangled Banner and the Yankees took the field. A roar from the stands echoed throughout the stadium.
Willie started out smoothly and stayed that way, on cruise control, holding New York scoreless through six and giving up only four hits. He was rhythmic, cunning and baffling. He got stronger as the game progressed. He froze the Yankee batters. Nothing was ruffling our Willie Gee. The Sox contributed a cushion of three runs to provide him some breathing room.
The fans rose for the seventh-inning stretch as Willie walked slowly off the mound toward the dugout. He stopped halfway, pressed his left hand to his temple, took a few more steps and then fell to his knees. He managed to get back up on his own, but then stiffened as if he’d been hit by a bolt of lightning. He remained ramrod straight for a second or two and then toppled over liked a felled old oak in a vicious hurricane. The trainer sprinted out of the dugout toward him, took a quick look and cried for an ambulance.
The crowd fell silent. A garage door slid open in the right field corner and a bright red ambulance whooshed across the outfield grass, raising a tail of dust as it crossed the infield between first and second. It slid to a stop on the grass and one paramedic bounded out as another popped open a rear door. They slid a gurney onto the ground, braced Willie’s neck with a stiff collar, loaded him on, rolled him in, sealed the rear door shut and disappeared through the same garage door they’d come from. All was hushed.
“They killed my father, and now they’re coming after me.” – Marty Nolan, on the pain of being a Red Sox fan, in David Halberstam’s “The Teammates.”
I walked into the drab green waiting area of the emergency room at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and circled a perimeter of family and friends who were carrying on an anxious, nail-biting vigil.
People greeted me warmly. I think they were relieved to see a familiar face with roots in the same place as their own and someone they thought could get the facts straight. They patiently told me what they knew:
The day from all accounts started out as usual. There were complaints of fatigue and of nagging, distracting aches and pains, but Willie said that was the usual at this point in the season; and true for just about all the guys on the team.
Willie and the others knew that adrenaline dulled and trumped aches and pain. Nothing would distract Willie and the Red Sox from dealing swiftly and surely with the New York Yankees in this make-or-break game.
Willie left the hotel shortly before noon, changed into practice sweats, trotted around the warning track, stretched, did windmills, and retreated to the clubhouse to gather up and focus his strength. He let his arms slowly rise over his head, palms up. He turned the palms down then and moved them toward the floor.
After a few minutes, he announced that he felt light, clear and confident. He said he drew energy from the ground. Then the trainer massaged Willie’s throwing arm, his back and his legs. A couple of hours before game time,
Willie ate his traditional pre-game meal, a bacon mushroom Swiss burger on a whole wheat bun with raw onion, with fries and a mixed spring green salad, dressed with vinaigrette, on the side. The meal had been sent over from the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Times Square.
The meal was a crucial element in a pre-game ritual carried out at Fenway and Yankee Stadium when Willie was to start – and only, for whatever reason, if the Sox were playing better than .500 ball, at least one more win than loss, and the team had been invariably posting a winning percentage this entire 2004 season.
After Willie ate, he changed into his dress uniform. This also involved ritual. If the temperature at game time was in the forties, he would don as he did tonight a thick, cotton, red, long-sleeved tee-shirt. Over the tee, regardless of weather, went the dress jersey; the gray shirt with “Boston” in plain letters stitched across the chest for the away uniform.
He buttoned it from the bottom up. Then he put on his hat, blue with the big “B” in red with white trim. He pulled his red stockings up and installed white stirrups. He then donned his gray trousers, left leg first, and tucked them in a third of the way up his calves.
Finally, he slipped on a pair of shiny black cleats, first the right foot and then the left., He tied them securely, and threaded a black belt through the trouser loops. He kept to this same routine, all ordered and measured, by unloosing the cap of a can of chewing tobacco, grabbing a plug between his right thumb and forefinger, placing it between the tooth and gum on his upper right side, chewing seven times – he figured if he could last at least seven innings, the bullpen could come in and seal the deal – and spitting into a Styrofoam cup.
Then, as we all know, he pitched seven brilliant innings, collapsed, and here we are.
I left the waiting area for a gulp of the fresh fall air outside. When I returned a few minutes later, Willie’s cousin Rocco pulled me aside near the automatic sliding doors to the emergency room. Rocco told me the doctors were calling it severe indigestion, and thank God it was only that. The build up of gas in his chest mimicked a heart attack.
It looked as if Willie would stay in the hospital overnight and then ride home in an ambulance or a helicopter, a nurse along on either, first thing in the morning. When it seemed like there was nothing more to learn at the hospital, I left for Penn Station and caught the Acela to Boston.
I had a plain cake doughnut and a carton of milk in the café car and woke up three hours later at Route 128. In ten minutes more, we were at South Station downtown and I was walking through a labyrinth en route to the apron for the Plymouth and Brockton bus and a 75-minute ride to the commuter parking lot on the off-Cape side of the Sagamore Bridge
I found my car, drove over the bridge and cruised into Hartsdale. My first stop was a shop called the Donut Depot. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, near closing time.
The place was empty, except for me and Stuie Napier, who made the doughnuts and managed the place. He was watching the Willie story in the television news with an anxious look on his face.
I filled him in on the little I knew. I said the worst thing for Willie must have been not being able to finish off the damn Yankees. Stuie favored me with a large to go from a freshly-brewed pot of coffee.
He took the last two honey-dipped donuts from the display case and put them in a bag for me. I got to the office around two, giving myself around three hours to make deadline. I conjured up a headline: “Willie expected home from hospital. Gee, season, collapse as Yankees win. All anarchy loos’d.”
We were wrapping up the story and were actually done with ten minutes to spare until deadline. I was thinking what good shape we were in when the phone rang.
It was Martin Hanrahan from the funeral home. “Peter,” he said, “It grieves me to report that Willie is dead. He passed at the hospital an hour ago. At least he was in the bosom of his family. What a blessing they were there, even if the Red Sox lost.”
The news stabbed us, and we were left with no time to waste. We put our grief aside as Jimmy set to compiling Willie’s feats on the ball field and I ran to the press room to beg for more time.
I hustled back to my desk to do a drastic overhaul on my piece. I quickly rewrote the headline to read, “A Hero Is Gone.” A second deck became, “Gee fails to come back from seventh-inning collapse.” On a third deck, it said, “Sox season over.”
I made it clear how everything was under control until Willie got carted off. Only then, with relievers who’d barely had a chance to warm up, did all hell break loose on the diamond. By the time the presses rolled, my body was sore and my bones weary, my head ached and throbbed and, though sleepless, I had no urge to go to bed. I also had not eaten a real meal in ages, but any hunger I felt was alternating with nausea.
I checked in at Bobby’s Tavern nearby for a draft of Stag beer. One of my all-time favorites was tonight’s special – lobster salad on a grilled hot-dog roll – but even that held no appeal.
I patted myself down for the cell phone and called Jan Eckert. Tonight, with this news, I hoped she’d feel comfortable if I collapsed into her arms. “Darling,” I told her when she answered her phone, my throat choking, “Willie Gee is dead.”
The Tale of the Toppled Hurler
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2016. All rights reserved.
It was old news for us a week later when, just for the record, we printed an announcement from the Gillante family attorney that had been all over the media for days. Willie, unbeknownst to the public, had been undergoing treatment for months for mild arrhythmia, a random fluttering of the heart, a condition exacerbated no doubt by chewing tobacco and high-fat red meat. Even so, the Sox doctors said he’d been responsive to a number of treatments that rendered his condition, in their words, “non life-threatening.” Witness his performance this season – until now. As a letter to the editor put it, how ironic that the better the Sox played, the more Willie worsened.
The fact was that Willie had slowly been killing himself. Was the demon his addiction to winning; going to any lengths? Had he convinced himself that any harm his superstitious ritual might cause his body, the chewing of tobacco and the steady diet of high-fat beef were worth it; crucial good-luck charms necessary for such success? Mix in the stress of a must-win situation there in Yankee Stadium, and why would it come as a surprise that his own stretch as the top of the seventh was about to start that cool October night in the Bronx would be his last?
Willie’s cousin Rocco called to say that what he had told me was true at the time. Later, the family needed to be left alone to absorb the shock, and then more time to decide how to release the news, and to whom and in what order. “Notice you got the first call?” Rocco said.
They buried Willie in the cemetery next to St. Theresa’s Church. The crowd was kept to family and intimate friends. The grief around town was high-pitched, keening and palpable. It didn’t ease off for a month. Parents all over were stripping the magic from the Willie story as gently as they could for the children. The Hercules of Hurlers, Willie “Gee” Gillante, a player revered and worshiped by the youth, we editorialized, was human after all; a role model in some respects and not in others. Human, yet no less great. Witness the numbers he posted as the leader for so long of the Red Sox Nation.
As a Hartsdalian, I could not keep my feelings at bay, or see things straight down the middle which, as the theory goes, is the obligation of the journalist. But how could I not experience sadness, numbness and shock at a time like this, and not express it in my reports? I actually teared up during interviews with fellow members of the Hartsdale High School class of 1987, from which we were graduated together with the one and only Willie Gillante.
Jimmy wrote a story about the mass grieving going on in town. “I wish it was me, instead,” one fan said. “And I have a funny feeling – what do they call it? — survivor’s guilt.”
It took about a month before things quieted down around town. Parents struggled to explain to the children that their hero, the Hercules of Hurlers, Willie “Gee!” Gillante, was human after all. Had he put winning ahead of taking care of his own self? One theory was that he was an addict, and at his core was addicted to winning games as a member of the starting rotation for his team, the one he grew up rooting for, the Boston Red Sox.
To him, many said, superstition was an adjunct to addiction. So he would chew a certain amount of tobacco and eat a particular high-fat beef, cheese and bacon sandwich, with mushrooms, before every game in Boston and New York as long as the team was playing better than .500 ball, winning more games than they were losing. In Willie’s mind, an idea adopted by scores of fans, the “Willie Gee” burger was crucial to the ball club’s success. Not everyone went along with Willie’s notion that the meal should be washed down with a juicy chaw of tobacco, though.
Hartsdale mourned hard, becoming the epicenter for ripples of grief that spread in ever-widening circles throughout New England.
They finally called it a heart attack, brought on by a build-up of unspent gases, aggravated by tobacco and a diet fueled more by superstition than sound nutrition. All that was needed was a trigger, and that was provided by the stress of pitching that must-win game in New York that Monday night in October.
There’s talk about a service in the spring to honor Willie at Fenway Park during the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May when the Yankees would be in town. Jimmy noted that the Saints, our home-grown band gone on to international stardom, would perform. Need it be said, Jimmy wrote, that bandleader Harry Hardcore is also late not of only Hartsdale, but also of the class of ’87 at the high school, same as Willie.
Now that the Willie story was slowing down, I felt more comfortable about getting a change of scene for myself and so I confirmed my reservations for the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., which was being held this year in Manhattan.
Jimmy was thoroughly schooled by now in the fundamental maxim of the newsroom: When in doubt, leave it out.
He was also moving around the place like a pilot whale and I think he was getting better at my job than me. I gave him a pep talk, booked three nights at the Edison Hotel, which was a short walk from convention headquarters at the Times Square Hilton and, despite the perquisite of my IRE membership and the Hilton’s group rate, a tidy sum less expensive. Not only did I like the Edison, but my publisher, Harding Sawyer, never balked when I presented him the bill.
We made deadline and I set out the next night, a Thursday, for the Route 128 train station in Westwood and the 9:36 p.m. Northeast Corridor Amtrak into Penn Station. It was 2:30 a.m. Friday when I at last hopped in a cab for the ride to Midtown and my hotel. Thirty minutes and one shower later, I flopped down on the bed and entered into a dreamless sleep.
I woke up in time for the meet-and-greet luncheon at the Hilton, followed by a session on how reporters in Washington State dug out how speed traps in small towns yielded more revenue than property taxes. If they can’t raise revenue one way, it’d have to be another.
The next morning, Sunday, I slept in and skipped the convention breakfast and the concluding remarks. I packed up my bags and wandered around the city, wheeling my suitcase behind me. My phone was stuffed inside there to keep me from being distracted.
I had plenty of time to gaze around before my train left in the early afternoon. I strolled toward Times Square and my thoughts turned to lunch; specifically, the signature bacon mushroom Swiss burger at the HoJo’s. This New York City version of Willie Gee’s favorite pre-game meal, called the Broadway Double-Decker there, was served to me with fries, cole slaw and a Pepsi. The sliced button mushrooms were smothered in the cheese.
After lunch, I strolled down 42nd Street, where I heard a door slam shut in an alley and saw a man in a white tee-shirt, checkered cook’s pants and grease-stained apron emerge. He stopped on the sidewalk, lit a cigarette, exhaled with pleasure, and turned to acknowledge me with a nod.
“You can’t smoke near the kitchen door,” he said by way of explanation.
He introduced himself as Joel, a cook at the HoJo’s, and said my IRE badge, Red Sox cap and the luggage gave me away as a conventioneer.
“You’re a reporter?” he asked.
I nodded yes.
He said he was once a Mets fan, never had any truck with the New York Yankees, and now rooted for the Red Sox. Then he asked me if I had covered the game where Willie collapsed. I told him I’d followed the ambulance to the hospital and I thought Willie would be fine, but when I got home, right on deadline, I learned he’d died.
“How about you?” I asked him.
He said he was right here, working the eleven-to-seven shift, handling the brunt of both the lunch and dinner crowds, and dropped into a tavern nearby to watch the game. Like every other time Willie started at Yankee Stadium, HoJo’s had prepared him his lucky pre-game meal, complete with the fresh chanterelles from his parents’ garden that were shipped in by train and delivered to the Hojo kitchen from Penn Station by bike messenger. Sauteed just so by the grill man, they were folded in with the bacon, Swiss cheese and beef and sent along to the visitors’ clubhouse in a special insulated box.
“The grill man disappeared a day or two later for some reason,” Joel said. “Could’ve gotten messed up with drugs. Not like it hasn’t happened around here before. He was new; just another short-order man, come and gone.”
We shook hands and Joel turned and walked back down the alley toward the kitchen door. I squinted to try and make out the title of a paperback that was stuffed in his back pocket, the cover facing out. I couldn’t be sure, and the book receded from view as Joel marched away.
A Mustang that looked familiar roared down the street and skidded to a stop a few feet away. A man tore from the car and raced my way. I fled toward Broadway, my luggage trailing behind. I zig-zagged through the pedestrians crowding the sidewalks and darted down whatever alley I came across. When I glanced back over my shoulder and caught no sign of him, I stopped, bent over, put my hands on my knees, struggled to catch my breath, and calmed myself. Then I felt a poke in the small of my back.
I turned around to see the barrel of a gun now trained on my gut. I looked up into the face of a tall man with slicked-back red-blonde hair, dressed in a rich, buttery, soft, supple, tan, hip-length leather jacket, a garment I knew I’d seen before. I also knew that face. It belonged to a guy called Russell, the same chap who’d teamed up with a big fat man to kidnap me four years ago after Harry Hardcore disappeared.
The Tale of the Toppled Hurler
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2016. All rights reserved.
“You’re out already?” I said, referring to the stretch Russell had pulled in the house of correction at Billerica for the first kidnap caper. “And your pal?”
I presumed they got to know each other well in the joint, making them more than mere business associates now.
There this myth here in Hartsdale of a fat man who was said to run a swath of rackets up and down Cape Cod, using legendary donut shops as cover. The story goes that the shops double as bookie joints. Both shops in Hartsdale alone, the Donut Depot and the Pastry Shell, are said to be under this corpulent character’s total control. He covets the raspberry jelly at the Depot, with the Bavarian crème, as it is spelled, a custard-filled chocolate-covered, a close second. His identity is hidden behind different names on the various official business licenses. There are shell companies within shells, mirrors facing one another at multiple angles, blue smoke. The shops even vary widely in quality to make it appear that one man could not possibly run them all. More and more, I wondered how much of a myth it was. Was Russell’s partner living proof that it wasn’t apocryphal at all?
The fat man had referred to Russell as subcontractor, though I would say surrogate. Last I checked, Russell had been commissioned to handle the jobs the fat man wouldn’t. The reason was the fat man had retired from the business of being a hit man. This, to me, was akin to Charlie Manson not being because he had others carry out his evil deeds.
Russell grabbed the collar of my jacket and ordered me to keep my mouth shut. He spun me around and walked behind me, twisting the gun barrel every so often into the spinal column. We trekked along 42nd Street to the alley. The car sat angled to the curb. Russell opened the passenger door and I climbed in. He settled behind the wheel, bound my wrists together with half a roll of silver duct tape, and peeled away.
“I like your taste in vehicles,” he said. “And radios.”
“Russell, right?” I said.
He nodded. He gunned the car toward the signs for I-95 north and thanked me for keeping the engine so exquisitely tuned.
“What do you all think I know this time that I actually know nothing about, like last time?” I said.
Russell shrugged. “Not for me to say. Ask my friend the fat man. He wants a meeting.”
I tried again. “Just a hint,” I said. “What story is he so sure I have when in truth I have squat?”
“Sorry,” said Russell. He grinned, and then his face took on a look of grim resolution. He was silent as we drove.
In minutes, we were on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, speeding past Co-op City, commanding the fast lane. My car sounded throaty and exquisitely tuned. We slowed only when we reached the toll booth in New Rochelle, where Russell brought the car to a stop next to a basket that gobbled up coins.
“You got any quarters?” he said as he rolled down his window.
I thought he had a hell of a nerve asking me to pay the toll. But with the outline of his gun discernible on the right hip pocket of his beautiful buttery soft leather jacket, it looked as if I had little choice.
I held up my bound wrists. “Either you reach in and fish some out of my pants pockets or cut me loose from the tape,” I said. “What’ll it be?”
Russell chose the latter. He pulled a knife from an inside breast pocket of his jacket, flicked his wrist to expose the blade and sliced my hands free. He held his right hand out in front of me, palm up, and I dropped one quarter after another into it. With his left hand, meanwhile, he pulled a fresh roll of tape forth from a trouser pocket.
He leaned out the window and tossed the coins into the basket. I could hear one or two bounce off the pavement. He looked at me for more money and I turned my pockets inside out and came up empty. The gate remained down and the light stayed red. Russell unlatched his seat belt, opened the door and leaned his head toward the ground in search of the errant tosses. A line of cars formed behind us, blasting their horns. Russell climbed out of the Mustang and squatted, peering underneath it for the coins. Outside of his sights now, I opened my door and made a run for it.
“He’s got a gun,” I called out, sprinting along the growing line of vehicles waiting to pay the toll.
Russell abruptly stood up, shoved his hand in the pocket that held the Glock, wheeled around and took aim at me. He fired twice and missed. Then he hustled back into the car. The tires made a high-pitched screech as he sped away, slamming through the gate and shattering it into splinters. Sirens went off and my car careened off into the distance.
I weaved my way through the backed-up traffic like a jay walker until I spotted a cab. I hopped in and asked to be taken to the nearest railroad station. It turned out to be close by in downtown New Rochelle. I would board the first train that came by, no matter what direction it was going.
The 2:27 p.m. Amtrak for Boston was pulling in just as I got there and I ran toward it and squeezed through the doors a scant moment before they sealed shut. I paid the conductor a premium to buy my ticket on board. I closed my eyes, chanted my mantra silently and settled in for the four-hour trek to South Station. From there, the plan was to catch the bus to Sagamore and call Jimmy for a lift home.
As I repeated the mantra – “Ommm, Shanti; Ommm, Shanti” – I submerged. Every thought and feeling became a bubble that floated up from under water and popped into nothingness when it surfaced. Ommm Shanti.
But I could not ignore the banging on the window for long. It was Russell, trotting alongside the train, slapping my window with the palm of his hand and hurling what from the look on his face were words brimming with invective. As the train sped up and Russell lost steam, he flashed his middle finger my way in the ancient sign of defiance. Well, screw him, too, I told myself.
I resumed the meditation, but my fear would not travel up through the depths to vanish on the surface. I was afraid that when I arrived at South Station, Russell would be waiting for me there at the platform.
“No Plymouth and Brockton to Sagamore for you,” he would say, giving me a sadistic grin. He’d stretch the hip pocket of his jacket toward me with a poke of the Glock and beckon me to walk with him, slowly, and not try anything.
“They fished your car out of Provincetown harbor,” Jimmy told me when he arrived ti drive me home. I told him it was the work of Russell, and recounted our adventure in Manhattan and Westchester County. Jimmy whistled low and long.
“He’s working with the other guy, right?” Jimmy said. “That fat doughnut scarfer.”
“The fat man, yes,” I said. “Russell was supposed to deliver me to him for a meeting.”
“The usual, I imagine,” I said. “Kill a story.”
“Which one?” Jimmy said.
“Beats me,” I said.
I asked him to drive to Bobby’s, where I’d buy him a beer.
“We’re rolling by the cop shop first,” Jimmy said. “Moran’s helping P-town sort out the dunked car.”
We passed by the Donut Depot and pulled into the lot in front of the low, red-brick building nearby that served as police headquarters. We were the only car in the lot. Just as we climbed out of Jimmy’s Civic, the double doors flew open and Detective Sergeant John Moran hopped down the front steps to greet us.
“Close shave?” Moran asked me.
“I would say whoever it is is sending you a message,” Moran said.
“I know who it is….our friends, the kingpins of the Cape, patrons of revolving door justice and scarfers of doughnuts. So, just what message do you think is being sent?”
“Simple,” said Moran. “Don’t make waves.”
“Whatever story you’re cooking up now that they’re sure would be their downfall?”
“I wish I knew what it was,” I said. “Sounds like it’d be big.”
The volume of letters about Willie was tapering off, and we summed up the thrust of them in an editorial making the point again that he was a role model in many respects and just the opposite in many others.
Life started falling into a routine. Each week, we’d feature the most quirky crimes, the best donnybrook at the selectmen’s meeting, and the most provocative answers from people stopped on the street by Jimmy as roving photographer. (It was a split decision on whether development at Wakeley Pond should halt because of potential harm to the tiny, threatened freshwater mussel known as the tidal mucket.)
The steady, quiet rhythm was a relief from the chaos. I started planning my next trip, giving Jimmy more and more responsibility. The insurance paid out enough for me to swing a new Mustang, charcoal gray in and out, six cylinders, built-in satellite radio, cruise control, power everything. Now I was grateful that the last one was totaled. There’d been no sign lately, thankfully, of the fat man or Russell.
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s came and went. After a holiday buying frenzy, Hartsdale settled into itself, cocooning for comfort in this first holiday season without Willie Gee. On New Year’s Eve, Hartsdale native Kirk Arroyo led the Saints in their traditional holiday concert, this year from Laughlin, Nevada, and he dedicated “Bang The Drum Slowly” to our fallen hero. Millions across the globe watched the show on television.
Plans were moving along to build a teen center in Willie’s honor on three acres of land on a promontory off the Cliff Road that Willie had left to the Hartsdale Foundation. To make things even fancier, townspeople would chip in with proceeds from a bazaar at Town Beach the Saturday before the Memorial Day weekend. One week later, Father Brian Gafferty of St. Theresa’s right here in Hartsdale was to lead a memorial service for Willie from the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park to what surely would be a packed house during a four-game holiday weekend series with the Yankees.
The Red Sox organization donated a ream of tickets to be auctioned off at the bazaar. The town garden club was cutting untold varieties of flowers and plants for sale. The Hartsdale Hydroponics Club was weighing in with all sorts of member specialties, including produce from Willie Gee’s parents’ lush vegetable garden.
When Warren Wyndham, one of my high school classmates, called to announce he’d sold the movie rights to his novel and was moving to Hollywood to write the screenplay, I was elated to accept his invitation to a going-away party. It would be at his place in New York. I’d drive my pony to the Route 128 train station, spend the night at his place in Manhattan, and be back in time for the first game against the Yanks on Friday night at Fenway.
I collected Jan around 11 the morning of the Hartsdale Bazaar, and we drove the ten minutes to Town Beach and spent another 20 finding a place to park. The lot at the beach was lined with booths selling everything from oil paintings to lamb kebabs. At one, a couple lay in repose in shiny, sinewy, beautifully-grained walnut, a sculpture by none other than the talented Jan Eckert. She’d contributed it to the collection at the booth of the art faculty of the Hartsdale Public Schools.
I’d seen the piece before in Jan’s studio and remember mentioning how the male’s face resembled that of the actor Richard Gere. The woman, on the other hand, looked a lot like Jan.
“Jealous?” she’d said.
The gray skies were yielding to blue, and puffy cumulus clouds floated in place just off shore. The waves were steady and gentle. There was a hint of summer. We walked from booth to booth, sharing fresh oysters from the aquaculture farm and sniffing our way toward the fried clams. I bought Jan a big straw hat with a broad brim. “To help your beautiful complexion continue continuing,” I said. She smiled at shook her head at my attempt to be cute.
We walked to the water’s edge, kicked off our shoes, rolled up our jeans and waded in. Effervescence surged through my calves. I anchored my toes in the cool, compact, soaked sand as the waves parried in and out.
A polka band started up and someone called out that the biergarten was open. We about-faced, wiped the wet sand off our feet, donned our footwear, and set out for the big green-and-cream striped tent at the edge of the parking lot. Once inside, we stood in line for two drafts of ice cold Stag and sausage, onions and peppers served on a grilled hot-dog roll.
We swiveled our way around the tables that crowded one another atop a mat of fresh-smelling straw. My guess was that hay is pretty good at absorbing things, like spilled beer. We weaved over to an empty table near an exit, smiling and nodding at the host of familiar faces along the way.
My mother walked in, talking animatedly with Arnold Ellington, our chief of police. She noticed us, excused herself, came over and sat down. I took her beverage order, a cold Stag, and off I went. On the way back, I saw her hoist my sausage, peppers and onion sandwich, chomp off a bite, look at me and point at it with an approving nod. I about-faced and went to get her one. The band started in on the “Beer Barrel Polka” and Jan and my mother got up to dance.
One glance around the room confirmed how rich the town was in lovely young women just over the drinking age. They drank and laughed and shook their hair and smiled to reveal their straight white teeth. My eyes turned toward Jan on the dance floor. Her blue jeans hugged her just so as she moved and laughed with my mother to the music. Neither of them noticed me.
Jimmy and I laid out page one on deadline four nights later on Wednesday. We had a picture above the fold of Willie’s parents, arms around each others’ waists, standing in front of several species of tomato and mushroom at the hydroponics society booth on Saturday. You could read the labels, heirloom on the tomatoes and Portobello and Chanterelle on the mushrooms, with a disclaimer that, unlike the tomatoes, the ‘shrooms had not been grown in water but in soil here in Hartsdale.
First thing Thursday, I drove to the Route 128 train station and boarded the 11:22 a.m. Northeast Regional for Penn Station in New York. We got in four hours later and I took a taxi to my Hollywood-bound classmate’s apartment on West 76th Street. All I carried was a pack on my back.
As for our new celebrity, Warren Wyndham, we’d worked together on the HighLights newspaper all four years at Hartsdale High and then he went on to New York University to study journalism, film and creative writing. He kicked around the publishing world in various roles, like screening query letters and manuscript samples for literary agents, and he squeezed out what time he could to write novels. After a couple of failures, it was bingo. He pocketed a healthy advance, Hollywood bought an option, bidding became brisk for foreign rights and now he would be paid, handsomely, for moving out west for a while, writing the screenplay and being on hand to consult with the director as they shot the movie.
Warren’s book, “Faded Voices,” was a mystery set in a town not unlike Hartsdale, about the murder of a huge rock star, a titan resembling our own real-life classmate David Jenkins Jr. who, as Harry Hardcore, led the universally-acclaimed Hartsdale-based band, the Saints.
I planned to write a story about the party for Warren: Yet another member of our illustrious Hartsdale High class becomes a star, joining the likes of Harry Hardcore and Willie Gillante, two bright lights I did not want to remind myself died premature deaths. I prayed that Warren Wyndham would not share their fate.
I knocked on Warren’s door late that afternoon and he opened it and flashed me a huge, warm smile. He held his arms out and we hugged. He wore a short, well-tended beard, reddish-brown, the kind you see celebrities sporting in the supermarket tabloids. He was dressed in blue jeans and a sparkling white tee under an unbuttoned blue denim shirt. Brown cardboard boxes, most sealed shut, cluttered the floor. The place was bright, spacious and high-ceilinged. I tossed my pack into the spare bedroom. Nothing was in there but a bureau and a cot.
Around six, three burly men in gray overalls arrived and carried out the boxes. The guests started showing up a couple of hours later. Invariably, they were dressed in black tee-shirts and black jeans; the uniform, as it was explained to me, of the New York literati. Warren had traded his own blue denim for black, leaving me odd man out in my fresh blue Levis and a white Oxford shirt.
The poet Janina Meorusso was there and a serious magnetic force pulled me toward her. We talked and talked, mainly on how the map was not the territory and so the media’s attempts to illustrate what really goes on were futile in the end. As were the artists’ stabs at representing the so-called reality underlying the sum of what we see all around us all the time, she said. But just as the map is a guide, so are the words, she volunteered, especially those rendered in stark black and white on a printed page.
She was reminding me how poems are meant to be read aloud when I realized I could not take my eyes off of her – the pale, clear skin; the hint of red on her lips; the bright green, searching eyes; the lustrous black hair falling to her shoulders and framing it all.
The idea of proposing a dalliance danced in my head, competing with good sense about how it would rupture my open and comfortable relationship back home with Jan Eckert. I was unaware of time passing by as we talked, and it was so sudden to me when Warren was hugging Janina and the others goodnight and packing them into cabs. I hugged her, too.
I walked back up the front stoop, went straight for the spare room and flopped on the bed, fully dressed. In my dream, the poet had joined me here overnight and we made transcendent love. I woke up eight hours later, at ten a.m., still in my clothes, at first wondering where Janina went and then, when it dawned on me she was there only in my dream, I felt relief. Now that it had never happened, there would be no need to slink and hide around Jan Eckert when I got home.
Warren was reading the New York Times over a cup of coffee in the kitchen. I poured some for myself. He handed me the sports section and we exulted in how I’d be in attendance in Boston all weekend for the Red Sox-Yankees holiday series. I held off on breakfast to keep up my appetite and satisfy a hankering as well for a Willie Gee at the Times Square HoJo’s, except here it was called the Broadway Double Decker. I was intent on catching the 1:57 p.m. out of Penn Station after lunch.
As I was wishing Warren the best of times on his journey and new adventure, the movers showed up again and hauled off the furniture. Warren said he was planning to hole up in San Diego to write the screenplay so as not to be distracted by the craziness of Hollywood. His focus, he said, would be the sound of the waves breaking, his mantra and his muse. Only when it was time to climb aboard for the shoot would he venture into the distractions and neuroses of Hollywood.
“Mission Beach,” he said, referring to a beach community in San Diego. “What a concept.”
Me, I secured my back pack and skipped off toward the subway, the first leg of my train trip home, with the detour at the Hojo’s for lunch.
There was only one stool left at the HoJo’s counter and I took it. It wobbled as I settled in. On my left was wallpaper with Simple Simon meeting the pie man, a steaming pie in the latter’s hands. Squeezed in on my right was a man who looked to be in his late twenties, dressed all in black and reading the Daily News. He had folded the paper into fourths the way they do in New York, especially on the subway.
A perky, curly-haired redhead in the turquoise and orange HoJo uniform, skirt just above the knees, took my order. I gazed at the image of the apple pie a la mode on the dessert menu while I waited. The ice cream, vanilla, oozed down the side of the pie, painting the apple filling in rich yellow tones.
“Red Sox Nation?” the man on my right said quietly, looking straight ahead.
“Red Sox Nation?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“The Willie Gee,” he said. “I ordered the same thing. Faux Willie, actually. Button mushrooms instead of chanterelles.”
My head turned with surprise that he knew the Willie diet in such detail.
He reached into the back pocket of his black Levis and pulled out a tattered hat in blue, the classic Boston “B” embossed in red above the visor. “I’d wear it now,” he said, “but I was raised that it’s impolite to keep your cap on in a restaurant, or indoors, period.”
“Not to mention inciting to riot,” I said.
“Any Yankee fan wants to mess with me, so be it,” he said. “If Bombers’ fans can parade their loyalty on the hats on their heads, so can I.”
Our Gees arrived, his just before mine, with fries on the side. We both had ordered Pepsi, too. Beyond an “mmm, this is good,” we dined in silence. Then my thoughts turned to the untimely death of Willie Gillante, my high school classmate, the incredibly talented toppled hurler. My eyes found a chunk of mushroom with a squish of orange cheese clinging on and I bit down. After a while, my counter mate pushed himself toward the back of his stool, picked the napkin from his lap, wiped his mouth, and raised up his Pepsi glass, as if to propose a toast.
“It’s about how you were brought up,” he began. “There are enough reasons all over the place to hate the Yankees….they’re gaudy, ostentatious, ugly, arrogant, smug….completely bad news. Bad news for the very game of baseball. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already.”
I nodded as I gnawed on a french fry.
“I know what you’re asking yourself, ” he said, taking a sip of his soda. ” You’re wondering how’d a rabid Red Sox fan end up having lunch in a tumbled-down HoJo’s in Times effin’ Square when it’s Willie Gee Weekend at Fenway?”
“Exactly,” I said.
He put the straw to his mouth and drained his drink, making bubbly sounds at the end. That caught the attention of our server, but he waved her off and reached for his untouched glass of ice water.
“I came here today to show my respect for the great Willie Gee on the eve of his memorial weekend,” he said. “Just like you. We pay homage by partaking of the dish named in his honor, even if it’s called the Broadway Double-Decker in New York.”
“So you’re catching the next train home?” I asked after a long sip of my soda.
“Train home?” he said, chuckling. “I live here now, Queens. Queens via Boston. I will be watching on TV. I have to be around for my Mom and my grandmother.”
Before I had a chance to ask him where his dad was, he continued: “No one serves the Willie with chanterelles, I don’t think,” he said. “I heard they’re delivered from his parents’ garden to the clubhouse for home games…and by messenger from Penn Station or the airport when he starts at Yankee Stadium. You know, they look just like the ones called Jack O’Lantern.”
“Jack O’Lantern?” I said.
“Flip side of the chanterelle. Inverse mirror. Shadow.”
“Wow,” I said, “the evil twin,” hugely impressed by this fan’s knowledge of the star’s eating habits.
“And you?” he asked me. “What are you doing here when you could be up there?”
So I told him how I was a reporter down from Cape Cod to wish a bon voyage to a local boy who’s become illustrious and was about to set off hooray for Hollywood.
“Warren Wyndham of Hartsdale, Mass.,” he said. “I read about in the Times.”
I mentioned, too, how Warren, Willie Gee and I were also members of the same graduating class at Hartsdale High School; not to mention Harry Hardcore, who I knew then as David Jenkins Jr. I put my sandwich down and held out my right fist. “Peter Hartwell,” I said.
Our fists bumped.
He stood up and we fist-bumped again. He left a tip on the counter, went to the register to pay his check, placed his cap firmly on his head, looked down the counter to catch my attention and touched the “B” for Boston above the bill. Then he was gone. I never did get a name.
I toyed with my fries and checked the time. I paid the bill, re-attached my pack, and stepped outside to watch the parade of people go by. Penn Station was about a half-mile away. The time flashing on the huge Reuters screen in Times Square gave me a whole hour to get there. The stock quotes rolled by with the time and, when I figured the lunch rush must have waned, I drifted over to 42nd Street and down toward the service alley on the chance that my old friend, Joel, the HoJo’s cook, had stepped out for a break.
It had been what, six months, since I’d seen him last? That was when I was in town for the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. convention. It was the same day that Russell rammed to a stop at the curb in my own Mustang and, after a brief foot chase, caught up to me and whisked me off to meet his compadre back in Massachusetts. The parley never occurred, for I’d managed to escape.
Joel was on the sidewalk, lighting up a cigarette. “ I just sat down at the counter next to a a rabid Red Sox fan, even though he lives in Queens,” I said. “We were both having the Willie Gee. Knows tons about mushrooms and the Willie Gee sandwich.”
“Sounds like a guy named Sunny. He’d always come in when the Red Sox were in town. I never saw him again after Willie died, though.”
Joel flicked his cigarette butt to the pavement and smothered it with his shoe. He reached under his apron and pulled the pack from his trouser pocket and tapped out a fresh one. He flipped it between his lips, curled his neck down, cupped his hands and lit it. When he came up to exhale, the smoke whipped northeast in the wind. I checked my watch.
“One word,” Joel said. “Buckner. That’s why I’m a Red Sox fan. Could no longer root for the Mets after the Buckner thing.”
“Buckner?” I said.
It was Bill Buckner’s bonehead fielding error that cost the Red Sox the World Series against the New York Mets in 1986. My stomach recoiled at the thought.
“Word is the Mets first-base coach was harassing him, and the umpire did nothing to stop it,” Joel said. “Believe it or not, and this is just what I heard, the coach was calling crossword puzzle clues out to Buckner while that wobbler rolled down to first.”
“The umps ignored it because they were in bed with the Mets?” I asked.
“It’s a theory,” Joel said.
I checked my watch again and saw I’d be skimming at this point to make my train. I held out my fist and Joel wiped his hand on his apron and bumped mine. “Peter,” I said. “Peter Hartwell, Hartsdale News.”
` “I remember.” he said.
Then I was off.
My plan was to be deposited at the Back Bay station and hop the T to Kenmore Square. I had a reservation at the Buckminster Hotel, where I’d shower and change. It was a routine stroll from there to the ballpark. The club had graciously supplied me a space in the back of the press box to wedge into. Any number of trains would get me from town back to the 128 station to retrieve my car after the last game on Memorial Day, Monday afternoon.
I climbed aboard and found a seat next to a window facing front near the cafe car. I secured my pack in the seat next to me and stretched my legs. I closed my eyes and silently chanted the mantra. “Omm Shanti; Omm Shanti.” Under I went, acknowledging my thoughts, picturing them as bubbles underwater, letting them rise to the surface and then pop, or fly high like balloons and disappear in the sky. It sounds like a cliche, I know, but the steady rhythm of the rails rocked me to sleep. I was roused only when the conductor called out my stop. I don’t even remember hearing any of the other destinations announced, such as New Haven or Providence or Route 128.
At Back Bay, I slung my pack onto my back again and set out on the five-block walk to the Hynes Center, where I’d hop the Green Line to Kenmore Square. Someone poked me in the back.
“Excuse me?” I said.
I turned around to be greeted with 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.
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.
“Since I have no story,” I answered him, “what’s it going to be?”
The fat man resumed punching buttons on the radio, cursing his luck that he couldn’t get a clock to pop up. I think he damn well knew how to find the time of day, but, just like with the Red Sox score, he feigned ignorance in order to annoy me.
“Some foul deed must have beset your dear companion,” I said. “He doesn’t answer the phone. Doesn’t return messages. Way late for this rendezvous. So just kill me now and get it over with. Then you can go off and find him and rescue him. He must be in trouble to be this late. And, oh, by the way, I’ve changed my mind. Holy Cross sucks.”
The fat man’s fingers twitched wildly over the jacket pocket. I rocked up to get a better look. He grabbed the back of my neck and suspended me at the top of my see-saw. There it was, his gun, pressed against my forehead. Goosebumps ran through my body inside and out, straining against my arterial walls.
“How’s that water look to you?” he said, nodding in the direction of the dark, cold, fast-flowing Charles, pockmarked in dazzling fashion by the torrents of rain. “Suitable enough grave site?”
“Depends if I go taped up and alive,” I said, “or already plugged dead and tossed in.”
The fat man’s phone rang. “Russell?” he said.
“No,” replied a voice. “A messenger.”
Through the mist I made out a sandy-haired young man in a stunning tan trench coat, the collar turned up high against the drizzle, the belt cinching in the waist just so. He was talking into his phone. Then he reached the driver’s side window and I was wondering if the Almighty had sent down the angel of death. I rocked myself back and forth to catch a glimpse of this Mercury.
“So what’s the message?” the fat man said.
“The message is this adventure with the rocking horse in the back seat will come to an end,” he said, nodding toward me. “Or so says your Russell.”
A siren approached on Storrow Drive, giving me hope that his backup was arriving. But the sound faded into the distance, leaving only the hiss of tires on the slick wet surface of Storrow Drive. His cell phone flew into the fat man’s lap and the messenger retreated into the mist. The headlights flashed at us again and the car swiveled and left the boathouse lot.
“Russell didn’t send that guy,” the fat man said, “but he had his phone. You’re right. My partner is in trouble. They must have caught the dumb son of a bitch at something and he offered you up as the bargaining chip. You walk; he walks. This dude is here to see if there’s anything to it. That messenger’s coming back with reinforcements. We’ve got to get you dispatched.”
The fat man started the car and turned up the heat. He pulled the car to the edge of the river and lumbered out. He leaned in the open door and turned to face me.
“Just think,” he said. “Pretty soon you won’t have to put up with any more bullshit, your own or other people’s. The noise will cease, forever. Doesn’t that please you? Aren’t you relieved?”
He popped the stick into neutral, shut the door behind him, walked around to the trunk and gave the Infiniti a shove.
It edged toward the water, sinking deeper and deeper into the mud the closer we got to the steep drop at the bank. Then it slushed to a stop, the front wheels stuck over the edge. I writhed like an eel to shake free of the tape, spinning, whirling, twisting, and stretching the tape as much as I could.
Then headlights lit up the scene. I was hoping for the messenger, leading cars full of cops to rescue me. But only a single car came, fishtailing to a stop near us on the soaked grass. It was mine, my Mustang. Out popped Russell. A woman emerged from the passenger side, dressed in a rubbery red raincoat and matching hat, something you might see on a Gloucester fisherman.
“I have arrived to do the deed,” Russell called to the fat man.
The fat man climbed behind the wheel and rocked the Infiniti back and forth. Russell signaled for him to stop. He opened the door on the passenger side and pulled me out. I collapsed onto the wet grass. He produced a serrated switchblade knife and sliced my legs free. He pulled me up and dragged me toward the water.
He handed me a blindfold, which I declined. I asked to be allowed to kneel down facing the river, with him behind me, plugging me in the head without warning. The Charles smelled fecund, as if creation and destruction were in constant motion on and just below the surface. I knelt and clasped my hands atop my head. The moist, muddy, dewy banks soaked through my chinos at the knees. It was a clammy way to die. Dry pants had never seemed so important.
“Bid the fat man a fond adieu for me, if you would,” I told Russell. “Oh, and tell him for me what a coward he is. He ought to be witnessing this execution that he himself ordered. Let him know I’m passing that along to Jimmy.”
“You talk too much,” Russell said.
“Oh,” I added, “and please ask him to think of what might have been with the blessed padre.”
I was smirking. Russell circled around me, his feet slipping on the mud-soaked edge of the river bank. My forehead was touching the ground. He bent down and lifted me up by my chin.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” he demanded.
“You mean the padre?” I said. “Just a memory I’d like him to hold onto. Now it’s time for me to die.”
“You’ll die when I say you’ll die,” Russell said. “You tell me what’s this about my friend and the padre?”
“If you don’t mind,” I said, “shoot me now. The heaven’s will look down on you with favor if you grant this doomed man this, his final wish.”
The fat man shambled over. Russell pulled me up.
“This shit has a last wish or two,” Russell told him. “He wants to be shot right now…and he wants you to think about McSweeney. What’s this about McSweeney?”
“Forget it,” the fat man said. “It’s nothing.”
“It must be something, or it wouldn’t have been brought up,” said Russell. “You said it was over between the two of you.”
“He’s just playing,” said the fat man, gesturing toward me.
“Hey,” I called out, pointing to the top of my head and the seam where the left and right hemispheres meet.
They turned toward me.
“Aim here,” I said, my index finger firmly on the spot. “That’ll give my brain waves a clearer path to Jimmy.”
“See what I mean about playing?” the fat man sad.
Russell shook his head, but his look betrayed the fact that some corner of his psyche clung to the notion that Jimmy would indeed be receiving signals from me even after the hot lead turned my brain to soup. And then, this whole story would make the paper.
“I just heard from Jimmy again,” I said. “Father McSweeney is still anxious to see you.”
Russell spun me around and pointed the gun at my forehead.
“Not so fast,” the fat man called out. He gestured toward the girl. “What about the witness?”
“I’ll whack her, too, while I’m at it,” said Russell.
The fat man ordered Russell to put me in the Mustang. Gun in hand, Russell pulled the driver’s seat forward and shoved me into the back, slamming the door behind him. A click told me I was locked in.
Seconds later, the door opened and the woman tumbled in, as if tossed.
“That bastard,” she said.
We could hear the fat man and Russell hissing at each other, but it was hard to make out the exact words. It was clear they were agitated, especially so our rotund ubermeister. I was hoping for enough of a stage whisper from them to confirm my suspicions; that is, the fat man was jealous because Russell was towing along the woman, and Russell felt the same way because of McSweeney.
She pressed her nose against the window, fogging it up, and she dabbed at her eyes.
Russell was shouting at the fat man to calm down. I thought that if Russell became more agitated, he’d open the car door, lean in, fire a cartridge or two into me and say to the fat man, “There, are you happy now?”
Me, I would die wondering why I was the guy who got shot when it was the fat man he was angry with.
The woman continued staring out the window, reporting back that the fat man had pirouetted and stomped toward the boathouse. Russell yelled, “And where are you going?”
“He’ll get his,” she said of Russell.
She told me that they’d met for the first time that very night. He sat down next to her at the bar of the Dugout Cafe and bought her a drink. Now, ten or so hours later, she hated him. “He’s already manhandled me, and he hardly even knows me,” she said.
Anyway, she went on, he’d waved two tickets for the game in front of her and asked if she’d like to join him. “He was polite then,” she said. “Besides, I had a few drinks in me. Never mind that it’s a Sox game…and the Yankees are in town. Did you hear any of it?”
“The game, silly.” she said.
“The fat guy wouldn’t even punch out a score for me on his fancy radio,” I said. “Just to be mean.”
“Sorry,” she said. “You would not believe what you missed.”
She proceeded to fill me in: There’d been an extended rain delay early on and when things picked back up in the bottom of the fourth, it was already well past 10 p.m., with the score tied at three-three. An inning later, it started raining hard again. The Red Sox were threatening, with two men on base and only one out. It started puddling around the plate and, before you knew it, the grounds crew flew out onto the field and laid down the tarp.
Wouldn’t you know how in New England you can wait a figurative minute if you don’t like the weather? Indeed, a half-hour after it burst, the storm cloud lifted and the skies cleared and the fifth inning resumed, with Red Sox second baseman Kevin Brennan, brother of catcher Beannie Brennan, in the batter’s box. There were runners on first and third, and only one out.
Too bad for us, though, Marie said, because Kevin grounded sharply to short and sparked a very nifty double play, if she would be permitted to say so herself, exquisitely executed by the New York Yankees. “That Derek Jeter,” she said, as if all her troubles would be over if only he was sidelined.
On and on it went, until the seventeenth inning.
“It had to be coming up on 1 in the morning,” she said. “So by now, they’re running out of arms and in went this kid, a southpaw, not long up from Triple AAA Pawtucket, a knuckleballer.
“Some pinch hitter gets up off the bench for New York. Our newbie tosses one down the middle – it looked like a grapefruit, for Pete’s sake — letter high, and up it goes, lofted, and just barely clears the wall. The crowd is sucking air into their lungs to pull the ball back into play. Shades of Bucky fuckin’ Dent.”
She was talking about the afternoon of October 2, 1978, when the Yankees met the Red Sox at Fenway to decide who can go on to play in the World Series. It was a one-game playoff. In the top of the seventh inning, with the Red Sox ahead by two runs, Bucky Dent, the Yankee shortstop, stood in. There were two runners on base.
Dent popped a pitch high up into the swirling breezes. At first, it looked like a routine pop-up to deep short. The crowd, just like tonight, undertook a deep, collective inhale in an effort to suck the ball back and keep it inside the park. Instead, it advanced and rose, bouncing around in the crazy currents, looking like it was about to land in left field, or even be caught there, as it dropped downward.
But then it would rise on an updraft, stay aloft by some freak act of nature, and barely clear the left-field wall, the Green Monster. In my recollection, the ball just perched there on the shelf at the top. It was a home run and the end to the Sox’s bid for the championship that year.
But we digress.
“So of course we couldn’t put together anything in our half of the inning,” my companion said. “After all that, hours and hours, we lose by one goddamn run. I’m Marie, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Peter.”
I told her how the fat man had dialed Russell’s cell over and over again, leaving message after message, and never heard back a thing. This went on for hours.
She said Russell let all calls go to voice mail because the game was on, but he couldn’t figure out how to shut off the ringer, which played an E-minor chord incessantly.
At one point, the home plate umpire shot both arms into the air, yelled time out and pointed toward our section near the foul line in right field. Someone in plain clothes arrived immediately to demand that Russell surrender the phone or leave the park. He gave up the cell.
“Did he happen to be wearing a nice belted trench coat?” I said.
“In fact, yes,” she said.
I recalled how a similarly-clad man had shown up and dropped a cell phone in the fat man’s lap. “They’re onto them,” I said. “It won’t be long now.”
The door opened and Russell grabbed both of us. He led us onto the muddy bank and, with the front fender about chest high to me, we pushed the Infiniti forward and up. The fat man rammed it in and out of reverse until the tires found traction and the car conquered the slope, held the edge, and bounced backward onto the grass.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” the fat man said.
Russell threw me into the back of the Infiniti and hopped into my Mustang. The fat man squeezed into the driver’s seat of the Infiniti and we took off. The Mustang was rocking from side to side as we left. Light opera came over our radio. It was “The H.M.S. Pinafore” by Gilbert and Sullivan.
“That’s Mario Lanza singing,” the fat man said. “You must remember Mario Lanza? Somewhere around here there’s a whole channel devoted to him and all the others he influenced…Bonnie Raitt’s father, John Raitt? Did you see ever see a picture of Lanza with his family? His son…? The guy looks just like you.”
“Mario Lanza’s son?” I said. “Can you tell from the picture if his personality is as pleasant as mine?”
The fat man pulled down his visor and opened a flap that lit up a mirror. I could see him examining his immaculate teeth. Orange and turquoise flashed in the distant sky in pastel, the colors tamped down by the low, dark clouds brooding overhead. We were coming up on the big HoJo’s sign beaming the colors onto Commonwealth Avenue.
When the operetta ended, the fat man started punching the radio dial like he was playing the piano in a honky-tonk bar. The stations whirred by thick and fast, carving out a melody only he could hear. There was fifties rock, jazz standards, divas of gospel, CNN, radio novelistas, classic vinyl.
“So Mario Lanza’s son,” I said. “A good looking guy?”
“Quite handsome,” the fat man said.
“You and your boy Russell,” I said. “More than just cellmates at Billerica?’
The fat man veered sharply into the HoJo’s driveway and brought the car to a stop behind the dumpster in the rear lot.
“You know,” I said to him, “you’re a very attractive man. And your teeth are just perfect.”
I’d never been gay before, but if it would get me out of this jam, it was all systems go. He wriggled out of the car, leaned over, and pulled the driver’s seat forward as far as it would go. It gave him just enough room to maneuver his girth into the back. The car shook as he plopped down beside me.
I held my bound wrists out to him. “Nothing but the best for you,” I said. “Two hands.”
With an outstretched arm and a grunt, he leaned way forward and opened the glove box. Breathing laboriously, he backed toward me. I shifted to avoid being sat on. Exhaling loudly, he produced a Swiss army knife and sawed my hands free.
He was unbuckling his belt when the knife fell to the floor. We both lunged for it like gridiron foes after a fumble. I emerged from the pile with the knife, rose up and plunged it at his heart. The blade bounced back at me as if off a trampoline, his fleshy shield impenetrable. He grabbed my wrist and twisted until I dropped the weapon.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That was wrong.”
“I wouldn’t be worried about right and wrong and I’m sorry just now,” he said, “because you’re about to be gone. Even if I have to pull the trigger myself.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” I said.
The fat man fished a roll of duct tape from a pocket of his jacket, held it up with a sorry smile, and rolled the tape around my wrists. Then he reinforced the tape around the ankles. He pulled the lever that pushed the driver’s seat as far forward as it would go and blobbed his girth out the door, shutting it behind him. Headlights lit us up. Seconds later, the car door opened again and Marie fell in.
“We meet again,” I said.
She turned her purse upside down and picked a loose cigarette from the clutter. She was sifting through the contents when the door opened again and a white bag flew in, landing on the floor below me. I nudged the bag toward her with my nose.
“I know I had a lighter in here somewhere,” she said.
Being in a car filling up with smoke with the windows sealed tight was not how I wanted to die. I asked her to please refrain in the car.
“Then where would I smoke it?” she said.
“I smell bacon,” she said.
“It’s my Willie,” I said. “Unless the duct tape comes off, you’ll have to feed me.”
“Feed you?” she said.
I held up my bound hands. The fingers of my left hand were ensconced in the palm of the right, all of it a ball now in a stream of duct tape. She bent over and retrieved the white to-go bag from the floor board, lending me a pleasant view of her firm breasts. When she surfaced, she became entranced anew with the array of junk that had tumbled from her purse.
“Excuse me,” I said. “My last meal, if you please.”
“I could swear I had a lighter in here somewhere,” she said, pawing through the detritus.
“Marie?” I said. “Marie?”
“Excuse me…?” she said.
“My Gillante, please.”
She raised her eyebrows in recognition, apologized and dug into the white bag. Out came the sandwich. The cheese clung to the wrapping paper, which was adorned with the word, “Gee!”
There was a drawing in orange-colored ink of him delivering a pitch, the style distinct: back arched like a bow, the kick almost up to his waist, his eyes unwavering, trained on the target. You could see his number on the back of his jersey. Number 44, Willie “Gee” Gillante, hero, Hartsdalian, dead.
My stomach proved to be too queasy for the full meal and I invited Marie to finish my Gee and fries. She shook her head no, noting that the recollection of Bucky Dent’s home run had pretty much done her appetite in.
At my urging, she turned the purse upside down again to shake loose anything still lurking there, like a Swiss army knife. The effort produced a stray, bent, unsmoked cigarette, which she slipped between her lips. She re-inspected the stuff on the seat, sighing. She looked at me, took a deep breath, lifted my bound wrists to her mouth and chomped down on the ball of tape with her incisors. It made little difference.
“Got a light?” she said.
“No,” I shrugged. “Sorry.”
“I need a light,” she said.
I heard Russell yelling at the fat man. “After I whack this butt wipe, I quit.”
Marie banged hard on the window with her fists.
“I need a light,” she yelled out. “Roll down the freakin’ window.”
“What?” It was Russell’s voice. His tone was taunting.
She unfogged the window enough with her hand that we could see both Russell and the fat man, nearly toe-to-toe, halfway between us and the dumpster.
“My partner does not want anybody smoking in his car,” Russell called out.
Marie took off a shoe and smashed it against the window. Then there was a click, an unmeshing. Marie leaned over the back of the driver’s seat and jerked the door handle up and scrambled out. I lunged for my side, flung the door open and rolled onto the pavement. A second click sounded to re-lock the car. I writhed every which way to loosen myself from my duct-taped cage. I managed to pull myself up by the door handle and hopped furiously to the driveway and across the front lawn to the HoJo entrance.
“Stop, you fuck,” Russell called out.
Smiling at the hostess, I nodded toward the men’s room and, before she could object, sped that way, a ribbon of gray tape snaking behind me and making a swishing sound across the floor. The handicapped stall was empty and I went in, pulled the latch shut, balanced my feet on both sides of the toilet seat and examined the transom window. It was open half way and held in place with chains that were bolted to the frame. Below were the shrubs and bushes along the side of the driveway that led to the back lot.
I heard the men’s room door open, followed by Russell’s unmistakable voice, mean and gravelly: “Get the fuck outta there or I’ll blow your head to pieces,” he said.
“Finally,” I replied.
I pulled on the window chains until they broke from the fasteners. Russell was on his back now, halfway under the stall door. I boosted myself up, thrust my head through the window frame, and started wriggling. Russell leaped up and grabbed at my cross trainers. I kicked at him and, grunting loudly, thrust my torso through the window and fell, landing in a heap on the pavement below. I hid in the shrubbery.
Russell’s footsteps came on fast. He was rustling the bushes as I crawled away on all fours toward Commonwealth Avenue. At the sidewalk, I burst into as full a sprint as the tape would allow. “Someone,” I called into the night, “Dial nine-one-one.”
A bullet whizzed inches from my right ear. I dodged and weaved. I turned down an alley and spread myself against the side wall of a building. The Infiniti veered in my direction but passed me by. Then it made a hard u-turn and stopped right in front of me, blocking my way. Russell jumped out and pointed his gun at the space between my eyes. He stepped toward me, turned me around and marched me through the Infiniti’s passenger side door and into the rear seat, where he taped me up and left.
The fat man revved the car up and headed out of town. With a traffic, it was only minutes before we got to Braintree and onto Route 3 toward the Cape. “May I interest you in some dessert?” he said.
My host punched in the Opera Channel and sang along as we cruised toward Braintree, down Route 3, over the Sagamore Bridge and on into Hartsdale. The moon was dim behind a film of low clouds. We passed the landmark Donut Depot and the fat man pulled a hard left and then another and we were in the alley that ran behind the shop. He pulled into the tiny back parking lot and crunched to a stop on the gravel.
He pulled me out of the car and led me through a gray steel door into the Depot office. He left the door ajar and a briny breeze blew in. He pulled a string to turn on a lamp that hung low over a wooden desk with a light natural stain finish, and then he installed me in a hardback chair that faced the desk, wrapping me up like a mummy with a fresh raft of duct tape. He settled himself behind the desk in a wooden swivel chair with a slatted back.
Harry Hardcore’s “Celestial Stream” came on, lulling me as usual into a calm state of acceptance. I clung to a thread of hope that there was a way out of this imbroglio and then just let the hope go. Somehow, giving up the feeling brought me back into the moment, and, grim as that moment might be, the tension left my body. “Celestial Stream” came to the chorus: “Slide Along The Milky Way With Those Among You With Whom You Are At Peace.”
The music was relaxing the fat man, too. His eyes fluttered and he laid his head down on the desk. His breathing became steady and rhythmic. His wheeze sounded fainter.
The long chord from Nipsy Sullivan’s Hammond B-3 signaled the piece was coming to a close. The B-3 pulsed, then faded into nothingness. Drummer Bobby Montefiore sounded the bell. After a minute or two, I surfaced, coming up slowly and gently. The fat man seemed to be staying deeply within his own reverie, his head resting on the top of the desk.
He remained still even when a trumpet blast sounded and a colonial-era town crier rang his own bell, calling out the time, 3:30 am., and that all was well. One item stood out. It was that a North Shore congregation would be dedicating a new community hall to the blessed memory of Samuel Saperstein.
When Sammy’s name came over the air, the fat man started huffing like a horse hustling down the stretch at the Belmont Stakes. I failed to catch the date and time over his noise. I figured it would have to be soon, plugged as it was here now on the radio. Even through the fat man’s loud breathing, I made out a mention of how the Sapersteins’ generosity extended even to the Cape, where Sammy and his wife had made a sizable contribution to the Willie Gillante youth center in Hartsdale, a fact which we had duly reported sometime ago in the News.
The fat man’s head bobbed up sharply. Though erect, he looked barely conscious, his eyes wide. Then his head fell with a thud back down on the desk.
It had come as a shock last Labor Day when we heard that Sammy Saperstein took a bullet point blank through the forehead in the middle of the afternoon while he dozed in an easy chair by the fireplace at his brother-in-law’s Cape house in West Barnstable. The wife and son had gone out shopping at the Hyannis mall.
Though West Barnstable is nearby, it’s not Hartsdale, so we had to reach for a way to fulfill our credos – “local angle, local angle, local angle” and “All Harstdale, all the time” — and yet latch on to some piece of this story so close by our border.
So Jimmy Clancy backed into a feature about how Saperstein’s Le Roi de Beignet chain had opened its first store on the Cape this past summer. The talk was the scaled-down store was a demonstration project for a network of cozy, boutique shops, perhaps one in Hartsdale. His son, heir apparent to the entire Le Roi chain, was honcho for the new project.
The daily Cape Cod Times out of Hyannis handled the brunt of the coverage: Apparent professional hit. Suicide ruled out. Crime of passion ruled out, too. No witnesses had come forward, and a neighborhood canvass came up empty. The wife and son had reportedly returned from their shopping trip with a big deep blue coffee mug with “World’s Greatest Guy” emblazoned thereupon in flowing yellow script, and found Sammy dead.
The Times’ obituary supplied this background: Samuel Morris Saperstein was born in Mattapan, Mass. on November 29, 1949, the son of immigrant Russian tailors who managed to stay a step ahead of Stalin after the war. Saperstein’s excellence in both athletics and academics at Boston Latin School earned him a full, four-year scholarship to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he played lacrosse and studied economics, including a paid summer internship for credit with the Sara Lee bakeries.
In his junior year at Dartmouth, he met a sophomore from the University of New Hampshire named Judith Naomi Marks and they were married shortly after she was graduated. Three years later, they had a child, Sumner.
According to the Times, Sammy plunged all his savings into opening the first Le Roi de Beignet in Beverly Farms twenty-eight years ago. He persuaded his parents to buy shares, thereby making them rich.
Known for its high standards of cleanliness and purity, the company introduced the New Orleans-style beignet to eastern Massachusetts and grew to become Greater Boston’s first large-scale alternative to the traditional doughnut chains like Dunkies, formally known as Dunkin’ Donuts. The beignets were sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and served with coffee with chicory.
A tabloid or two blew smoke about how Sammy must have led a double life, for why would such a prominent civic leader, a man known for his generosity to the community, be the target of such a crude execution.
The fat man raised his head off the desk. He turned his eyes toward mine and struggled to focus. “Fuckin’ Sammy,” he said, his tone affectionate. “I knew him. We grew up together at the tracks, playing those goddamned hounds. I miss the old Jew bastard.”
I heard the crunch of gravel and, through the open door, saw my Mustang pulling into the back lot. It wasn’t long before the car was swaying to and fro, Russell obviously occupied with Marie.
“So,” I said, “if you’ve quit the hit business, then there had to have been hits in the first place. Could we pass the time talking about them until Russell is done? Give us something to do? What does it matter what I know at this point? I’m about to go south anyway.”
“‘Them’?” the fat man said. “There’s only one. The only hit I carried out. It was many, many moons ago; many. Fellow by the name of Pietro ‘Plaid Petey’ Petrocino.”
“So, someone put out a contract on Petey for whatever reason, and you were lucky enough to get the job. You must have had a big payday on that one.”
“Kind of…” the fat man began.
“No others?” I said.
“There were no others,” he said.
“You ever stop by a place in Chatham?” I said.
“There are a lot of places in Chatham.”
“Coffee shops? Doughnuts?” I said.
“Oh no, you don’t,” the fat man warned me. “I had nothing to do with any hit on anyone called Fat Tony.”
I guess my memory had served. The hit was indeed in Chatham, where the fat man may have been linked to a doughnut shop and its owner by virtue of an attempted hostile takeover. Word at the time was Fat Tony was not about to sell.
“Fat Tony Antonio?” I said. “Also known as Jelly Donut?”
“We were amicable in our business relationship,” the fat man said.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You wanted it all, every coffee and doughnut shop this side of the canal. Tony wasn’t selling. That place in Chatham….”
“Nuts 4 DoNuts,” the fat man cut in.
“Yuh, that place,” I said. “The Antonios put in a lot of work to make that place what it is.”
“One of the best, for sure,” the fat man said. “Right up there with the Depot.”
“And the sports book out of there?” I said.
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“Someone said it was thriving, maybe second only to the Depot on the entire Cape,” I said, making it up.
“Your someone doesn’t necessarily have all the facts.”
“So help me out,” I said.
“The cops were his best customers,” he said. “Who among Chatham’s finest would bust the guy who makes the best doughnuts, assuming there was bookmaking going on in the back room, which I don’t know there was.”
“Kind of a business model?” I said. “Doughnuts in front, sports book in back?”
“If you say so,” the fat man said.
“I heard how Tony was behind the counter when this guy came into the shop and got in line and waited ten minutes before he got to the front. He asked for a raspberry jelly doughnut, which he loved and coveted. And Tony looked up at the guy and snatched the last three raspberry-filled from the display case for himself. I heard he told the guy, sorry, we just ran out. I heard that Tony knew they were this particular customer’s favorite…and then Tony got whacked, right then and there, in the shop, behind the display case.”
“You heard wrong.”
“Didn’t Fat Tony Antonio have a wife and kids?” I said.
“Never asked him.”
“Slammin’ Sammy Saperstein,” I went on. “What a guy…a credit to the industry. Now that was obviously a hit…smack in the middle of the forehead. Don’t you think?”
“Whoever did it was crazy,” the fat man said. “Thank Mother Mary and Jesus that I’m out of that game.”
“So, Plaid Petey,” I said. “What kind of beef did the boys have with him?”
The fat man shrugged his shoulders. “No problem,” he said. “Just that the world’s a better place without him. Simple as that. Ask anybody.”
“So you did the Cape a favor?” I said.
“Not just the Cape,” he said. “Greater Boston, the whole Bay State, all New England.”
“What’s one hit when the whole world’s a better place now that Petey’s gone, right?”
“So, except for Petey, which was basically a humanitarian gesture, you’ve never been a hit man at all?” I said.
“How’d you guess?”
Last we saw, Hartwell’s latest escape attempt was foiled and he was chauffeured by the fat man from Boston to the Donut Depot in the heart of Hartsdale. The fat man is now indulging his tryptophane urgings.
The fat man left the office for the front and returned with a parcel of half-pint cartons of chocolate milk. He handed me one with a straw so I could manage it and I thanked him. He lined his up across the desk in front of him and began downing them one by one; looked like a dozen in all. Now, in an apparent magnanimous mood, he changed the channel from All-Harry-All-The-Time to WEEI-AM, which was reporting the agonizing Red Sox loss in a game that took several hours to finish amid multiple rain delays.
“It’s true,” I said. “We are cursed. Never should’ve sold the Babe to the Yankees. Think about Bucky Dent. Buckner. Never mind what happened with Willie.”
The fat man fiddled with the dial. He stopped again at Sirius/XM 838, the All-Harry channel. “Songs in the Key of the Planet Pluto” was on and, as usual, I zoned out.
Nipsy Sullivan leaned into the Hammond B3 and struck a decisive chord that I took for a C because I saw red, the color of the root chakra, at the base of the spine. I’d learned from someone named Marcie in Las Vegas that the colors vibrate inside us as we hear the sounds. All you have to do is quiet down, tune in, and find a state of relaxed alertness. The “F” note, for another example, produces the color green and massages the heart.
When Bobby Montefiore struck the bell with his thick rubber mallet to signal the beginning of the opus’s end, I began to stir, homing in on every last pulse. When the peal faded to nothingness, I resurfaced. I felt refreshed, renewed.
On the other hand, the fat man looked agitated. His head began bobbing erratically, bouncing off his chest; his eyes fluttering open and shut. He twitched and fidgeted, jerked, sat up and faced dead ahead.
“Buckner’s clean, I tell you,” he shouted out. “Clean.”
The images rushed through me now, vivid and sharp and sickening. Bill Buckner crouches unsteadily at first base as a wobbly but routine ground ball comes his way. Somehow, it goes between his bowed legs and into right field. The play costs the Red Sox the World Series in 1986 against the New York Mets.
“It was the umps,” the fat man said. “They did nothing to stop it. The Mets coach…he was harassing Buckner the whole time. When that ball dribbled down to first, that coach, he was distracting Buckner, calling out crossword puzzle clues from that day’s New York Times.”
I cupped my hand to my ear. I made a fist with the other and held my imaginary microphone to my mouth. “OK, Jimmy,” I said. “I’ll ask him.”
I turned my attention back to my companion. “You paid Buckner to blow that grounder?” I said, astonished at the possibility.
The fat man was shaking his shoulders and stretching his neck. He took a long breath.
“That’s one of those, ‘If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you’ things,’” he said.
I let out a laugh. “You’re going to kill me anyway,” I said.
“That series was rigged,” he insisted. “No question. It was the umps. They let it go…the taunting. Never a thing to stop it. I know this for a fact. And that’s the story of the Bill Buckner error.”
“That’s nothing to kill me over,” I said. “Kill the umps.”
The fat man’s fingers were dancing on the lower left pocket of his enormous suit jacket, whose horizontal stripes alternated light and dark gray. That’s where he kept his gun.
If anything could make him mad, aside from references to his dropping out of The College of the Holy Cross even though he had a full, four-year scholarship, it was suggesting that he was still a hit man and that he himself would be carrying out my execution, not Russell. Kill the umps, indeed.
But I got the feeling that the only way I could goad the fat man into reaching into his jacket pocket, pulling out the Glock, pointing it at me, cocking the trigger, squeezing, and plugging me squarely between the eyes was by harping too long and hard on him about how he could not deny being a killer, no matter whether he pulled the trigger or not, and no matter how many Our Fathers and Hail Marys he recited at McSweeney’s request in whatever confessional or holy water storage closet they happened to find themselves in. He clung to his illusion that he was off the hook because Russell carried out the hits.
I put my right index finger to my lips and called for quiet so I could tune Jimmy back in. I cupped my ear, listened, and announced to the fat man that Jimmy was back on the line.
“You can tell him Buckner’s clean and he can be sure of that,” the fat man said. “He wouldn’t take the money.”
“Jimmy,” I said into the mic, “can you hear me? It’s not true…Buckner refused the bribe.”
The fat man’s head fell to the top of the desk and drool seeped from the side of his mouth.
I felt a chill and looked over at the doorway. Russell was standing there, stuffing his shirt into his trousers. He took one look at his boss and another at me, and made straight for the kitchen. I could hear him brewing fresh coffee. The urn gurgling, he returned to the office and went to the desk. The fat man looked semi-comatose. Russell pulled open the top left-hand drawer of the desk and extracted a key. He flipped it in his hand and headed back to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, he was carrying two large coffees and all the fixings into the office, including an array of flavored creamers and packs of sugar and sugar substitutes. He poured three shots of plain cream into one of the coffees, tossed in several sugars, stirred it up and held it under the fat man’s nose. Russell patted the fat man’s face and he began to come around. Groggily, he looked down at the coffee. Russell lifted the cup to the fat man’s lips.
Russell then walked through the office and up the three stairs to the shop. He returned a minute or two later with a corrugated metal case, bigger than a breadbox. With an elaborate gesture, he lifted the lid and revealed a collection of assorted doughnuts, sparkling there, with emphasis on the fat man’s all-time favorites such as raspberry jelly and Bavarian cream, which the Depot spelled “creme.”
“Wake up,” Russell said to the fat man. “Dinner is served.”
The fat man spied the open box and brightened. Russell picked up a napkin and plucked a Bavarian crème from the assortment. He handed it to the fat man who, with a look of great anticipation, chomped down. He licked the custard off his fingers, lifted his coffee cup, took a sip and then a gulp. After a glazed and an apple spice, he started to look almost normal. He took on a contemplative air. Russell procured a paper plate and piled up a pyramid of product and started with it for the car. I appealed to the fat man.
“Russell,” he said, “loosen Hartwell up and get him a doughnut.”
Then the fat man turned to me. “How do you take your coffee?” he said.
Russell put his own assortment down on a corner of the desk. He walked through the office and up behind the counter. I heard the coffee urn drain dry, sighing like an air brake. He returned with a large pot of coffee and poured me a cup, black, just as I’d asked. It was hot, and brewed to the high standards of the establishment. I requested and received a jelly donut, raspberry, which turned out to have been well preserved in the humidor. It was just doughy enough and tasted quite fresh.
The fat man and I sipped our coffees and he pointed out the features of the metal box. He directed my attention to meters and dials that measured the outside temperature and humidity and adjusted them inside the box, automatically. It all depends on weather conditions, he said. He spoke with pride about how the device, his own invention, kept the donuts vibrant for up to 36 hours.
Russell picked out a plain cake from the humidor, took a bite and left it half-eaten on a piece of wax paper on the corner of the desk, next to the pyramid on the paper plate. “I’m not sure exactly just what story he’s come up with, boss,” he said, “but right or wrong, we’ll be fingered somehow in that damn newspaper of his.”
“Consider it done,” I said. “I just got the big ten-four from Jimmy. He’s writing it as we speak.”
Russell looked at the fat man blankly and shook his head. He picked up what was left of the cake doughnut and chewed slowly.
“Something about telepathy,” the fat man said by way of explanation. “Claims he and Jimmy Clancy communicate over a special wavelength where they vibrate a column of air in tune.”
I cupped my right ear with my hand. “Shhh,” I said to my foes. “Something’s coming in.”
At last look, Hartwell was being held by the fat man in the back room of the Donut Depot. The heat is on as to Hartwell’s continued existence on the planet. He asks for quiet and announces that something is coming in from Clancy, referring to Jimmy, the ace reporter.
I covered my eyes with my left hand, as if struggling to hear. “What’s that about Willie?” I said. “Yes.”
“How about now?” Russell said, pointing his gun at me.
Instead of answering him, the fat man turned to me and asked what Jimmy had come up with on the Willie Gee story. I told him I’d lost the signal and he’d have to read about it on Thursday.
“Are we going to be in it?” the fat man said.
The question struck me as strange. “Why would you be in it?” I asked.
“Don’t say a thing, boss,” Russell interjected.
I said, “Jimmy’s pulled in this plot to kidnap and murder me on that ethereal crystal receiver of his. You two are a big part of that, of course. Willie Gee is a whole other thing.”
“What whole other thing?” the fat man said.
“Can’t say,” I said, “because if I guessed right, you’d kill me for knowing too much.”
The silence lasted a long time. Russell lowered the gun to his side. I searched for something less controversial to talk about on the theory that you don’t kill a guy in the middle of a conversation. The first thing that came to mind was that I’d neglected to thank the fat man for buying me the bacon Swiss mushroom burger from HoJo’s earlier that night. “I meant to say thanks for that tasty meal, the Willie Gee,” I said. “Now I know why it was a regular thing with Willie. Just delicious.”
Instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” the fat man exchanged a glance with Russell.
“What is it this time?” I said wearily. “What are you so sure I know that I don’t?”
“If I told you, then you’d know,” the fat man said.
“But you’re sure I know already.”
“About what?” I said.
Russell interjected again. “Don’t go there, boss,” he said.
The fat man went ahead, anyway. “About whatever the big story is that you’re working on now.”
“Like I told you,” I said. “Jimmy picked up the signal about this kidnapping.”
“So what’s going on with Willie?” the fat man said.
“Willie?” I said. “For all I know, Jimmy was talking about Robert Louis Stevenson, what with the signal breaking up and you two yapping in the background.”
“What about Robert Louis Stevenson was he talking about?” the fat man said, a hint of alarm in his voice. “He wrote ‘Kidnapped.’”
“Voila,” I said. “You cracked the code.”
You could almost hear the gears in the fat man’s brain whir as he pondered his choices. For all he knew, Jimmy was about to pop a story about the fat man and Russell kidnapping me, so if I did turn up dead, it wouldn’t be all that much of a stretch to figure out who did it.
“Just let me go and I’ll get the story killed,” I said. “Not a word of any of this gets out.”
“You know,” the fat man started in, “nobody gives that much of a damn for a run-down weekly newspaper editor in Hartsdale, Mass., when the Hub and the whole of Greater Boston are crumbling around our knees, and the country and the world as well.”
“So even if we run the story, it’ll all blow over and they’ll stop looking for whoever did it, even if I’m dead,” I said.
“Don’t get into it with him, boss,” Russell said.
The fat man declared that he did not care to discuss it anymore because, for all he knew, the telepathy wire was still on and Jimmy was taking everything down. Now I was regretting being so persuasive that the fat man had actually bought into this telepathy business.
Russell was shaking his head as he scooped up his plate of doughnuts and went out the door. The fat man watched him leave and we heard the door of my car open and close. The fat man rose from the swivel chair and traipsed toward the coffee shop. Taped to my chair, I shuffled my bound feet toward the desk, hoping our friend had left his Glock in the pocket of the suit jacket that was draped over the back of the swivel chair. I was hopping in that direction when he called out, “Do you know how to make the coffee?”
“Yes,” I said, “but not all trussed up like this.”
I heard him sigh and he shuffled down the three steps back into the office. He pulled a Swiss army knife from a desk drawer and proceeded to slice me free from my gluey cage. He looked at me. “No funny business,” he said.
Once behind the counter, I fiddled with various valves on the urn as if fine-tuning it to make the perfect cup of coffee. But what I was actually doing was dislodging the massive stainless-steel monstrosity from its moorings on the utility counter. Meanwhile, the fat man was leaning over to inspect an array of day-olds on a metal tray at the bottom shelf of the display case.
I hoisted the urn above my head like a set of barbells.
“Lemon for me, please,” I said, bringing the urn down hard on his neck. He fell to his knees, dazed, and stared up at me with astonishment and fury. The force of the blow left a dent in the can. I kicked it and it click-clacked erratically toward the office doorway and down the three steps. The fat man tried to get up and fell flat.
I left him there and hustled to the desk. I reached into the left hip pocket of the huge gray-on-gray suit jacket draped over the swivel chair. I pulled out both duct tape and the Glock. The keys were on the corner of the desk. I pocketed them.
Behind the counter, on webbed rubber mats, the fat man lay stock still. I rolled him over face down, pulled his wrists behind his back and wrapped them tightly together with the tape. I pulled him to his feet and waved the gun out in front of him. I ripped another strip of tape from the roll and plastered it across his mouth. My hand squeezed around his left upper arm. I caught him by the collar with the other one. We both nearly fell as his body slid down the office steps.
Through the open steel door, I saw my Mustang gyrating wildly. Russell and Marie must have been making up again. The distraction gave me a chance to drag the fat man over to the Infiniti. The tips of his black wingtip shoes bounced and scraped across the gravel of the back parking area lot. My Mustang stopped gyrating, the springs ceased squeaking. The car was still and I could hear Russell snoring through the half-open windows.
As quietly as I knew how, I opened the passenger side door of the Infiniti. Holding my hand over the fat man’s taped mouth, I pushed the passenger seat as far back as it would go and stuffed him in it. I wrapped the seat belt around him and closed the door gently, which turned out to be all that was needed to seal it shut. I stole around the trunk to the driver’s side and climbed in. The engine started with a sweet harmony.
The dome light flicked on inside my Mustang. Russell was yelling, “Hey!”
I floored it, careening from the lot and flying through the alley onto Route 6A. Lights came up quickly behind us. It was my car, racing by on the left.
Then, two or three miles later, there it was, parked on the right shoulder. The driver’s side door was open and Russell was crouched behind it. My lights caught a glint of his Glock. He was pointing the hardware precisely between my eyes through the front windshield.
I grabbed the fat man’s gun from between my legs. I saw a flash, and a bullet blasted through the windshield, splitting the distance between the fat man and me and lodging in the thick, plush leather of the arm rest upright against the back of the rear seat. The windshield took on the look of a spider web.
Russell scrambled back into the Mustang as I sped away. The fat man was fully awake at this point and alert. Russell raced by us again, and I caught a glimpse of Marie. Her seat back was almost all the way down and the seat looked to have been moved as far back as it would go. All I saw were her eyes peering out the window.
I kept up with Russell, side by side on the two-lane road. I stretched my neck out the window and pointed the fat man’s weapon at the meat of the Mustang’s right front tire. To my amazement, I scored a bull’s eye. The tire popped and hissed and the car listed to the left as the bare rim scraped the pavement, setting sparks flying. I heard metal gouging a stand of scrub pine trees off the shoulder as the car rammed into a tree and stopped. Smoke rose from under the hood. I hurtled on toward the Sagamore Bridge and the relative safety of Route 3 toward Braintree and town. The fat man kept checking his side-view mirror for Russell.
I looked to Harry Hardcore to help calm me down with one of his interplanetary vibrations. When I flicked on the radio, though, I held at the first thing that came on. It was a quiz show where three contestants get a clue and the first to hit the buzzer gets a crack at the answer which, the host reminds us, must be in the form of an answer.
A guy named James started things off because he was the reigning champion.
“So, James, please select a category and an amount,” said the host, whose name was Rob Plotnick. “And remember to give your answer in the form of an answer.”
“I’ll take Middle East for one hundred, please, Rob,” James said.
“Middle East for one hundred…and the answer is, ‘land between two rivers.’ James, you buzzed first.”
“What is Mesopotamia?” he said.
“Mmmm, once more…?” said the host.
James answered in a louder, querulous voice. “What is Mesopotamia?”
“Judges? The judges won’t accept, I’m sorry. Anyone else want to give it a try.”
“Correct,” said the host as the audience applauded.
Host Plotnick related that James was slapping his forehead and mouthing the words, “form of an answer, form of an answer.”
“Mesopotamia,” I heard the fat man gurgle. “I mean, what is Mesopotamia?”
The punch of a button called up marches by John Phillip Sousa.
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.
They’ve weathered the crisis at the temple and now Hartwell heads for town to witness the rest of the Yankees’ series.
Jimmy drove me to Kenmore Square, where I checked into the hotel and lingered under a hot, needle-point shower until I could feel the tensions wash off and disappear down the drain. I dried off and wrapped a bath towel around me, sat down on the bed, nodded off and then managed to find my way between the sheets, where I cocooned with the thick, comfy blanket unfurled from a shelf in the closet.
When I woke up, it was dark. I looked out the window to find the lights off at Fenway Park. Dawn was an hour away. I’d slept through the game. I’ll make the one today? Was it Sunday?
That afternoon — it was Sunday– public address announcer Sherm Fellows announced how it is only fitting that Naomi Saperstein throw out the first ball, not only because of her family’s vast philanthropy throughout Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts, but also for the generous gifts to the Willie Gee Foundation that support the youth center on the promontory in Hartsdale.
Mrs. Saperstein climbed the mound and toed the rubber, sixty feet and six inches from home plate. She leaned in, and then straightened back up as catcher Beannie Brennan strode twenty-five feet closer to the mound. Beannie, wearing a chest protector, squatted, the pocket of his mitt staring back at Sammy’s widow.
She zipped the baseball to Beannie underhand with startling speed right down the middle. It smacked the mitt with a resounding pop that echoed around the park.
People in the crowd were calling over to Derek Jeter in the Yankee dugout to step in and try to hit Mrs. Saperstein’s pitching. “You can handle this gal,” one fan called to him.
Jeter climbed to the top step of the dugout and smiled in the fan’s direction and shook his head. No, he mouthed, he would not be stepping into the batter’s box to face Naomi Saperstein and, yes, it was because he’d witnessed her stuff.
I shipped Jimmy’s story about the whole episode to our State House guy, Howie Grady, for editing. How could I possibly be both subject of the piece and editor of same; the editor of my own subjectivity?
Jimmy did not fail to point out in his story how the fat man got tripped up by the spelling of the two nicknames: the “u” in Sunny and the “o” in Sonny. I’m still confused as to which is which. Is Sunny with a “u” Slammin’ Sammy Saperstein’s son or Pietro “Plaid Petey” Petrocino’s?
Anyway, it’s any excuse for a party with the crowd at Bobby’s and they feted me during the last week of June, just after school let out. Jan and I were about to take off for Southern California and the Baja, planning to be beach bums for three weeks and to attend the closing day of the Del Mar Fair in San Diego County on the Fourth of July. The to-do at Bobby’s was billed both as a pre-Overton Prize celebration and a bon voyage party for me and Jan.
As for the Overton, the most coveted honor in journalism, Jimmy and I had already learned how expectations are futile and dumb. I need only to recall his devastation at our failure to get even an honorable mention for the coverage that led to the jailing of the ex-mayor of Hartsdale, Frank Brennan, (incidentally, a cousin of Red Sox catcher Beannie Brennan). During his bid for governor a few years ago, he was connected to a conspiracy to murder cranberry industry lobbyist Jeannie Doveman.
Jimmy would manage things at the paper in my absence and, since it had quieted down for the summer on Beacon Hill, Howie would back him up. He’d also house-sit at my place and keep an eye on Jan’s, too, picking up a picturesque change of scenery in the bargain during a Cape Cod summer. I told Jimmy to let Howie do as little as possible so he could enjoy the surroundings. The great thing for me was that they both were so good at their jobs that I would not have to give Hartsdale a second thought while I romped around the waves with my beautiful inamorata, Jan Eckert.
They’d hung a huge banner from the rafters in the big, barn-like main dining room at Bobby’s. Spray-painted on a white bed sheet in several colors, it read: “O U, Kid!” The O and U were dressed up like emoticons, the O sporting a wry grin and just short of a wink, and the U exploding into a spasm of a big, wide smile.
Bobby’s laid out a beautiful buffet featuring its signature lobster salad, complimented by grilled hot-dog rolls and cole slaw. The TVs were on mute, and the close-captioning was bursting with the day’s big news, broken by Jimmy the day before in our modest weekly: To wit, this year’s All-Star game was suspended, and the All-Star break extended, so that the Red Sox and Yankees could square off to decide afresh the official 2004 championship of the American League.
The commissioner had decided that there was sufficient appearance of “outside interference” in the outcome of the 2004 playoffs, a tidy euphemism for the assassination of star hurler Willie Gee.
Major League Baseball offered the Red Sox these choices: They could be declared the champions by default, with all the accompanying asterisks in the record books; they could play the entire best-of-seven series all over again, the champ as usual being the first to win four; or they could start where they left off, down three games to none in the potentially deciding game, at Yankee Stadium.
“What would you do?” we asked in a poll of the readers. “Play the entire series or have a showdown, just the one game, do or die?”
Our readers insisted that if there was to be just the one game, it should resume in the top of the seventh with the Red Sox up and sitting on a three-run cushion. Boston lost, they said, because Willie could pitch no longer. The relievers barely had a chance to warm up. Besides, as with both the other players and the fans at that moment, the bullpen was shell-shocked.
But the fact was that Major League Baseball was not about to propose re-starting such a crucial game where things left off, three run lead notwithstanding, when Willie collapsed. The league declared that such a crucial contest should not be decided in as little as two quick innings.
In the end, reader polls meant nothing, for it was up to the Red Sox front office to make the call.I sent Jimmy up to Fenway Park to wait for the announcement. He called it in late in the afternoon: It would be a showdown, do or die. The fourth game would be played all over again from the beginning, at Yankee Stadium, no score in the top of the first. The Yankees would still lead the series, three games to none. Given a win, Boston would still face the task of sweeping three games in a row. So here it was; the Red Sox would be in the same pickle they were in last October 17.
My first reaction was that the decision of the Sox front office was insane. Why roll the dice like this when you could give yourselves seven games to knock New York off. But when I thought about, it was so cool and so sound. No favors would be asked and none granted. Faith would indeed be rewarded, or the dream shattered. This was Boston honest; Boston strong.
My mother walked into Bobby’s for the party and Jan intercepted her, helping her off with her coat, and leading her to two stools at the bar just vacated by other celebrants. They ordered Chardonnay. They were making a toast to life when Chief Arnold , in street clothes, barreled through the heavy, oaken doors. He gave me a nod, a smile and two thumbs up, spotted my Mom at the bar and strode in her direction. He hovered at the two stools and the women swiveled around to acknowledge him. After a while, he turned his back to Jan and focused all his attention on my mother. I could see Jan signaling whether to cede her stool to the chief or stay as a buffer. My mother indicated let the chief sit. She looked resigned and reluctant to me.
“He’s had a crush on her for I don’t know how long,” Jan said when she returned to my side. “But I think she barely tolerates him.”
Jimmy arrived, not only wearing an “O U, Kid” tee-shirt, complete with emoticons, but also carrying a gross of them in several sizes. People slipped them over their shirts and blouses and the bar became a sea of winks and broad smiles in a rainbow of simulated spray-paint colors on white.
Soon, it was time for Jan and I to say our hasta la vistas what with the long day ahead tomorrow, starting with a drive to Logan for our flight west. Aside from wandering up the coast to Oceanside and south to, say, Ensenada, we would camp at Mission Beach and surprise our friend Warren Wyndham, the novelist, who had said that’s where he’d live and write until summoned to Hollywood for the actual shoot of the screenplay of his book.
Jan has promised not to call me the “Oh, you kid” for the duration of the trip nor to don the emoticoned “O U, Kid” tee shirt she got from Jimmy after tonight. And so I am serene and at peace as we board our plane at noontime in Boston and head for Lindbergh Field in San Diego, set to arrive around lunchtime in California. Fish tacos, anyone?
As we know by now, the Yankees went ahead by a run in the bottom of the eighth of that replayed fourth game with a quick double to deep center field and a single to right on the first pitch, a plum that creased the inside corner. It all happened with two outs. Down a run in the ninth, the Red Sox started things off with a bloop single just beyond the reach of a retreating second baseman. And then, as you may recall, they brought in the great Dave Roberts as a pinch runner.
God, the tension, the focus, the pressure, the drama as he gathered his energies, combined them with all he knew about the art of base stealing and kept a lookout for the Yankee pitcher’s quirks; quirks that might be tells. Leading off first an extra six inches could make the difference. He was looking for a split-second advantage. To me, he looked at once alert, coiled, intense, and also relaxed; on a kind of calm high alert, relaxed tension. He knew what had to be done, and he had the skills to do it. His senses seemed to fuse into one clear energy field, synchronized to the job at hand, the theft of second base.
It became silent when he took off. The catcher released the ball quickly and threw on one-hop to the right side of second base. The second baseman fielded it deftly and swept his glove down and toward the bag as Roberts chugged in like the sprinter he was and managed to slide under the tag. He was safe. Red Sox Nation roared. The steal took the oxygen out of the Stadium, as they say. The tide looked to have been turned.
The momentum building, a single slapped to right scored the fleet-footed thief and now the game was tied. The way things were going now, you got the feeling nothing could stop them; not just in this game, but in the three to follow. When Beannie Brennan short-porched a solo home run into the right-field stands to put the Red Sox up by one, the feeling was validated. When the Red Sox bullpen combined to retire the meat of the Yankee batting order one-two-three, it was over.
Pain may be part of being a fan, but our faith will not waiver and our faith will be rewarded. The reward would have to be three more wins in a row.
As you’ve likely heard already, the momentum from that stolen base steamrolled the Red Sox over New York in the next three games to make Boston the official American League champions for 2004. When the Red Sox then rolled over the St. Louis Cardinals in four straight to win the World Series, it felt like an afterthought.
Here in Hartsdale, we are jubilant even as our hearts still ache. Our anger seethes about the murder, so sloppy and stupid and unnecessary. But we are coming to realize that the seething will only destroy us. We take comfort that Willie’s wish came true. The crown is installed in Boston, Mass.
There’s a youngster out of Hartsdale High coming up through college now who’s got people in town talking about reincarnation. The Red Sox scouted him in high school and now keep an eye on him in Worcester at, wouldn’t you know it, The College of the Holy Cross. Word is he’ll report to the Double-A club in New Britain, Connecticut once he graduates in May. The townsfolk here are talking about how he’ll mature into a steady, powerful winner just like another hometown great — need the name be said?– Willie Gillante. And every time this new kid takes the mound, he’ll be honoring the legacy of the slain superstar.
As for the fat man, who we know as Gabriel Spoiltessoni now by the name his watch is registered to at Rolex, my theory is that he lies to himself about what he’s doing without realizing it. He has to, because facing squarely what’s deep inside would only crush him. He coats himself with layers of denial to mute the dissonant screech resounding in his cortex: He’s nothing but a depraved murderer who gets a big kick out of it. He uses food, notably doughnuts, as anesthesia. Stuffed with enough Bavarian cremes, there’s no room left inside to feel a thing, anything at all.
The Nation bets with its heart, the fat man would say. It gives you an edge in business. Yet who could have imagined that this corpulent corpus would actually mastermind a murder to give the Yankees the win? You’d have to be certifiable to entertain even a fleeting notion that it could happen, am I wrong? Yet it did happen.
Looking back now at the night when Willie collapsed, it felt cold and foreboding from the start. You could hear the anxiety bouncing off the rosary beads from the triangle of nuns from Boston seated out in deep right field. Please, just one more win, Almighty, one more in the name of Jesus; one piddling more run for the Red Sox than the Yankees by the time the game ends, by your Grace.
Bobby’s Tavern plays the playoff games over and over again on the huge screen in the main dining room. Another screen behind the bar is on a continuous loop of Dave Roberts’ daring theft of second base. Willie’s spirit hangs in the air the whole time. But for his absence, the fans could not be more happy and fulfilled.
We hope this kid coming out of Holy Cross and heading for New Britain will not make us forget Willie Gee, but will ease the sting of our loss. I hold onto that hope along with everyone else, and I hold on tight to Red Sox Nation and to Jan Eckert, too.
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.