"Carrots," Hollywood's favorite screen Virgo remarked, lifting his famous left eyebrow, "my celebrity sense is telling me that something big is happening in the center of town."
He was right. His celebrity sense had not failed him since his dubious decision to produce and direct a trilogy of big-budget films depicting the life of the first Secretary of the Interior, and this time he was zeroed in. Just two seconds after the roar was first heard, a chorus of booing, as if voiced by an entire nation, began to pour like a wave of acerbic lava from downtown Lexington toward the suburbs. The booing was only strengthened by a recent patch of humid air from an unexpected Canadian warm front. It caused Carrots to raise his tennis ball-sized head to the night sky in wonder and dread terror, which was pretty much how Carrots approached every natural phenomenon, including even his meals.
Closer to the bustling streets of the city center, the human booing did not just worry the citizens who populated the coffeehouses, the bars, the ATMs, the Christian Science Reading Rooms of Lexington—it endangered their safety. The booing rose to such a freakish crescendo that the Kentucky Earthquake and Equestrian Center began to receive frightened phone calls about a possible record-breaking tremor. Traffic became ensnarled as people slammed on their brakes, and the brakes of others, to listen. On North Limestone Street, buildings trembled, and a fabricated metal letter fell off a Starbuck's Coffee sign and crashed to the sidewalk, causing the place to become a tarbuck's. Down the street at Tarbuck's Coffee, Terrence Tarbuck shook an angry fist and shouted something about trademark violations when the sound of the booing rushed in through the front door accompanied by a throng of scared pedestrians, rattling his knockoff cups and plates and dishes and causing him to instantly stop honoring all Tarbuck Tuesdays discount cards for fear that the end was near. At the intersection of Church and Market Streets, the booing disrupted the electrical circuit inside the blinking yellow caution light in front of Avalon Hill Elementary, causing it to blink almost twice as rapidly, throwing drivers into unprecedented fits of prudence. On West Vine Street, the booing was so apocalyptic and terrifying that two co-workers putting in late hours at a prominent investment firm felt the need to suddenly confess long-dormant feelings for each other, which would have been quite tender and sweet if their feelings were not generally ones of mild disgust.
In less than sixty seconds, the city's intelligentsia, including Carrots himself, was able to determine the source of the booing. It wasn't hard to figure out. All of Lexington's eyes went toward the biggest building in town: Goods and Services Field, the forty-five thousand seat baseball stadium that was home to the Lexington Cannons.
Inside that august shrine to America's greatest game except for possibly football, the capacity crowd was just getting started. Game Seven of the 2002 World Championship Series was not yet officially over, but the partisan audience bellowed and screeched to the high heavens to let the rest of mankind know that the contest was done, dead, history, nada. The stands shook violently with their anger and disapproval. Fifteen thousand people would later be treated for eardrum damage sustained during the fifty-two minute twelfth inning, and another twenty-two thousand large sodas (priced reasonably at eight dollars each) would be knocked over by no force other than the nightmarish decibel level. The scoreboard blew roughly forty percent of its bulbs, causing the evening's displayed attendance figure to become, simply, 8.
The ire of the crowd was focused squarely on one Cannons player.
His name was Benjamin Glinton. During the 2002 season he had hit for a solid .272 average with 12 homeruns and 77 RBI. He had stolen ten bases, come through with a pair of game winning hits. He had patrolled left field reasonably well, making up for a weak left arm with solid range. It was his sixth season with the Cannons. His team jokingly called him Sasquatch in ode to a particular game in which he had lurched with almost simian awkwardness toward home plate after stumbling on the edge of third base. After October 21, he would have a very different nickname. Hundreds of them, in fact.
Ben Glinton, a speck of nothingness to the cosmos but a figure of some sudden importance to Kentucky sports history, sat like Stonehenge at the end of the Cannons bench, trying desperately to keep himself from putting his fingers in his ears. Many of his teammates, who had moved far, far away from him, had already done so, but Ben felt that moving the slightest muscle in his body might cause him to crack into a thousand useless pieces. His face was as ashen as Don Knotts's tombstone. He felt the booing of the crowd pierce his feet and his hands like some sort of disrespectful reference to the Crucifixion. The jeers found the On switch controlling his pores, struck it with one mighty swipe, and the flop sweat commenced, running freely down his forehead and neck in a magnificent river whose breathtaking peaks and rapids would be a boon to any northern state's tourist economy. He felt the penetrating glare of embattled manager Greeny St. Clair in his very epiglottis.
Time spun out, and the booing of the forty-five thousand seemed to pass through decades, centuries, and finally eons as Ben tried to mentally will his body to reduce itself to a sub-molecular level and pop out of existence like a soap bubble. It didn't happen. Somehow, just before the crowd's sinister group mind began to weigh the pros and cons of rushing the field in an attempt to literally eat him in one voracious bite, he managed to get to his feet and turn to the Cannons' backup catcher, Joey "Carrots" Williamson, speaking the last seven words he ever would to his teammates:
"I have to go to the bathroom."
No one stopped him. No one could find the words. Ben took two steps down from the dugout into the tunnel and disappeared, moving as stiffly as the tin solder in whatever production of The Nutcracker would be most avoided that particular year.
The boos followed him into the tunnel, not letting up for an instant. The tunnel ended at the locker room. His face slack and expressionless, Ben pushed the door open, moving silently past a pair of stunned network news reporters who were still trying to figure out what to ask him and could get out nothing but some odd guttural sounds that sounded like a bunch of Gs stuck together.
Ben shuffled like a thoroughly Thorazined zombie past his locker, more than aware of the gawking stares of the equipment manager and the assistant trainer, who looked up at him from a small screen where the two men announcing the game on national TV were trying to convey to millions of viewers the sense of abject doom inside the stadium. Ben moved past the bathrooms as well and just kept going, as if he were taking a leisurely but strangely nervous stroll on a Tuesday morning before batting practice. He kept his eyes straight ahead.
After the locker room was the training room, where a towel boy stepped out of Ben's way and shoved two small wads of cotton in his young ears to drown out the booing which had penetrated the very earth. Ben said nothing. He looked as if ten liters of maple syrup had been shot directly into his cerebral cortex. It was how he looked one night back at college when he had drunk so many beers that he fell down and skinned his knee when attempting to simply spell his name to impress a girl.
Past the training room there was only a short outer hallway where Bruce Kish, the creator of the team's mascot, stood in his black bear outfit, cradling the giant head under one arm. He started to say something to Ben that sounded like an embarrassed "vuh" but could force out nothing more. His face was beet red in empathy. Ben barely noticed him. He pushed on the door that marked the exit to the Cannons parking lot and stepped through it into the night.
Ben stood still for a moment, inhaling the musk of the sweet autumn air.
Then he started to run. Still in uniform, mind you. He didn't even take his cap off.
He had eighty cents in loose change in his rear pocket where he kept his batting glove. That would have to be enough. The 29 bus to Gratz Park was just coming around the corner. It was going to be close. He had maybe two minutes to get beyond the fence to High Street. He ran like he was trying to beat a throw to home plate. He ran like he had never run before.
The booing inside the stadium drowned out the sound of the door opening behind him. He heard a single male voice shout his name and he began to run even faster. For all he knew, Abner Doubleday himself had appeared behind him in enraged spirit form, bent on taking him down with a single dart from a Tanzanian blow gun for the damage he had just irreversibly caused to the sport of baseball. The chain link fence was just fifteen feet away. No time to leave through the faraway player's entrance. He would have to climb and throw himself over like that spy dude from the James Bond movies.
"Ben, stop!!" cried the lone voice. "It's me, Harold!"
Ben stopped and turned. Harold Pillick, the Cannons' bench utility infielder (.221, 1 HR, 6 RBI in 22 games in 2002, all career highs), stood under the feeble glow of the lights in the parking lot, waving his arms. Ben started back quickly, but not because of a change of heart.
"Harold!" he shouted. "You've got to get me out of here! Give me your car keys!"
"I don't have them," Harold said meekly when Ben was close enough so that he didn't have to yell and could be heard above the pitiless crowd. "My mother dropped me off today."
"Then come with me," Ben said desperately. "Come on, you never had a career and mine is over. Come with me and we can get away before they rip my arms off and fry them up with butter and lemon!"
"You've got to get back in here, Ben," Harold pleaded meekly. "You're gonna get in a lot of trouble."
"Do you hear those animals?!" Ben shouted. "If I'm not on that 29 bus when it pulls away, I'm a dead man!"
"Oh, you're making too much of it," Harold tried to tell him, at which point dozens of people in the top row of the stadium high above spotted the two of them down in the parking lot and began to yell, pointing and cursing. The news of Ben's exact geographical location spread through the capacity crowd at the speed of light. Now if they could only locate some propane torches and meat hooks, they could get busy.
"This is our chance for freedom," Ben said, panting, his eyes becoming wild and spacey as his last connection to sanity abandoned him without looking back or even leaving a Dear John letter. "Our names are mud in this town. You're the worst player in the history of baseball and I just became the most hated. Together we can start new lives in New Zealand! We can marry Maori girls and never think about this stupid sport again!"
"I don't know, Ben," Harold replied, removing his Extra Small cap and scratching his balding head. "I think you're going to make people even madder."
"Then stay and be damned!" Ben cried, not so much in anger as in soul-searing horror as debris began to rain down from the top row of the stadium, debris that included everything from ice to seat cushions to seats themselves to an actual wheelchair, hurled at Ben by the Cannons' oldest living fan. The last words Ben ever uttered on Cannons team property were "I'm getting out of here while I still have my legs!", at which point he turned, galloped toward the fence, and scaled it with the agility of a well-fed moa, New Zealand's favorite wingless bird. From there it was a mere nineteen foot drop to the pavement. He hit it like a big bag of soggy candy corn, enduring bruises in places better left to the imagination. The 29 bus screeched to a halt twenty-four inches from his face. Fortunately for Ben Glinton, the bus had no working radio to transmit the broadcast of the game, or the driver would surely have finished the job. Ben got very slowly to his feet, having dislocated a useless humerus or two, and threw himself into the bus as if he were diving headlong into the stands to catch a foul ball, which he had never actually had to do.
The bus pulled away just as the national press burst through the door behind Harold in search of the man who had just destroyed the Cannons' title chances in the most phenomenal display of bad baseball the world had ever seen. Harold waved at the bus in a friendly manner and Ben waved back from his aisle seat. Inside the stadium, the New York Guardians sent another three runners across the plate with a moon shot homerun to left that closed out a ten run, ten hit twelfth inning. The booing eventually, mercifully, stopped. Recordings of it in its entirety would soon be sold on the Internet as a CD. Harold Pillick would buy one for his niece because she asked for it for Christmas. From that point on, the CD would be played without commercial interruption once a year on most Lexington radio stations at the exact time the booing had begun on that night in 2002. Once, sitting alone in the darkened Oval Office, the President of the United States, a Cannons fan since childhood, listened mournfully to those sounds and wept silently, considering how he could best use the faith entrusted to him by the American people to deport Ben Glinton to Yemen. Nothing ever came of it. Like all the great men who had held that office before him, the President just wasn't all that much on following through with things.
Among the first board games to approach the feel of a real pro contest were Clifford Van Beek's National Pastime and Ethan Allan's All-Star Baseball. Gamers could play using the abilities of actual major league players, and were able to feel a manager's joy of throwing a massive tantrum if those players didn't perform in the clutch. Baseball board games began to get ever more sophisticated just as the sophistication level of those who got paid to actually play in the pros began the steady decline which continues to this day. There were some design failures along the way, of course. Games like Bunt Till You Drop and Fidel Castro's Slide, Lying American, Slide! were quickly forgotten by the public.
In 1951, a man named Dick Seitz gave APBA Baseball to the world. APBA (pronounced "AP-BUH" by its fans) quickly became popular with those wishing to re-create single major league contests, series, or even complete seasons. Among its fans were Ed Koch, George H. W. Bush, Jeff Daniels, and Brent Musburger.
The nineteen eighties saw the rise of video games, which at long last enabled sports fans to channel most of their mental energies directly into their thumbs. The stimulation of flashing lights and fake crowd noise, coupled with the long dreamed-of ability to program one's initials onto a TV screen, caused many to turn away from board games. But thousands have continued to play APBA, both in leagues and individually in quiet rooms on sunny Saturday afternoons when the pros come to life under the guidance of anonymous managers, with no real limits to what can happen.
This is the story of how the game changed one man's life.
(Not Brent Musburger's, if you're wondering.)
Dr. Smozer's office was in a two-story brownstone that marked the dividing line between the nice section of Harrisburg and the one that Ben had called home for the past eighteen months. Ben entered the office at a little after noon, or about an hour before he usually got out of bed these days. He offered a subdued hello to Bernicia, the moody receptionist whose eye patch seemed to switch from one eye to the other depending on the season, and waited twenty minutes for his appointment to begin. He had a choice of magazines he could read to pass the time. From a stack highlighted by Sports Illustrated, Baseball Weekly, and this year's Street and Smith's major league preview guide, he selected the June 1997 issue of Permafrost Gardening and thumbed idly through the pages, stopping occasionally to look at attractive women featured in advertisements. He tried to remember when he had last gone on an actual date. He recalled there being some snow on the ground. The young woman he'd wooed at the local laundromat had been somewhat impressed at dinner by his tall frame and his claim to be an ex-ballplayer. She'd been noticeably less enchanted with a very long and complicated joke he'd told about the difficulties of physical intimacy between a prune and a walnut. Though the joke was solid gold, and had been confirmed as such by the fellas who worked behind the counter at GobbleDonut, he'd been alone in the world since the moment he delivered its punch line.
"I know you," spoke a grizzled voice to Ben's left as he reminisced about unrequited loves gone by. He turned to see a small elderly man gazing at him intensely, and in not too friendly a manner.
"Mmmmmm, no, I don't think you do," Ben replied, unconsciously tugging the bill of his ball cap lower over his face.
"Yes, yes," the man insisted, squinting and leaning further in. "I've seen you on the television—in some negative context if I'm not mistaken."
Ben sighed. "All right, yes, you have," he said. "My name is Glen Binton. I'm the guy that played the first Secretary of the Interior in that trilogy."
The old man's eyes lit up. "Of course!" he said, beaming. "I watched the last ten minutes of it not a year ago. Well done, young man, well done! Such authenticity!" He grabbed Ben's hand with one that felt like a cold moist pancake and squeezed.
"Super, super," Ben said, smiling nervously. A minute later, just as the old man had launched into a lengthy, rambling monologue about the history of the Dewey Decimal System, Ben was called into Dr. Smozer's office. He walked in more jittery than he had been in years.
Dr. Smozer was a rare psychiatrist in that he had vintage monster movie posters from the nineteen-fifties plastered all over his walls and a steady stream of Supertramp hits playing softly on a small stereo system at the back of the room. He was a pudgy man who had chosen to dye his graying hair a fiery red color which tended to frighten children and people with pacemakers. Ben ran his hands though his own sorry excuse for a haircut and sat down across from him.
"Okay, Ben," the doctor began, "today's the big day. How do you feel?"
"All right, I suppose," Ben replied. "Sorry about that bounced check."
"Which one?" Smozer asked. "The one from February or the one from May?"
"May," Ben said. "The one from February was more the electric company's fault. See, they have this thing where they usually cash my check for my water bill on the fourth, but then suddenly out of nowhere they decided to be heartless Nazis and—"
"No matter," Smozer interrupted. "Let's not put off today's momentous task by getting sidetracked on matters of who owes who what money, or who's been mis-dating his checks, et cetera. Shall we begin?"
"Sure," Ben said. "Absolutely. Let's cut right to heart of the thing, let's scale that rock. It's been seven months of therapy, I'm ready to roll."
"Excellent," Smozer said. "I'll ease you into this a bit. I'll let you set the scene for me, and you can even close your eyes if you like and we'll go back to that night in 2002, and hopefully by the end of this session you'll have finally confronted those events head-on and we can move right past them."
"Okay," Ben said, closing his eyes, losing sight of the far wall and Mothra breathing fire over the terrified Japanese populace. "Okay, it was...October 21st, and it was Game Seven of the championship. Full house. Fifty-eight degrees or so. I don't know what the barometer was doing. Rising, I think. Rising? Yeah, that sounds right. Bono sang the national anthem. Pretty good, except he put in some lyrics about some free trade deal involving Panama or something."
"Yes, I recall," Smozer said, leaning back in his leather chair and lowering the volume on the stereo somewhat. He stroked his freakishly red beard. "Go on."
Ben swallowed hard. This was going to be tougher than he thought. "Um....things were going pretty good. We got a couple of runs in the top of the second, New York got a couple of runs in the fifth. Curse Williger was pitching pretty well—"
"Curse Williger?" Smozer asked. "Is that the Walter Williger you've mentioned before?"
"Yeah, we called him Curse because of those three awful calls that went against him in the wildcard series the year before," Ben remembered. "Completely changed his personality. Started calling inanimate objects 'bastard', stuff like that. He just plain quit last year. Still sends me Christmas cards. He talks about his wife and kids and then goes off on a violent harangue against umpires and then thanks Jesus Christ for various things."
"I understand," Smozer said. "Continue."
Ben took a deep breath. "So, ah, yeah, Joe Costa scored on a squeeze play and we were ahead 3-2 in the top of the ninth. Our closer came in, Tom Tippett, and, you know, things went on from there, and New York took the title. Shame, that. Good times, though. Good days."
Smozer smiled. "Yes, quite, Ben. But you may have left something out."
"Well, we don't have to do this today, right?" Ben asked meekly. "Why don't I come back next week. I'm a bit peckish right now, not so much up for talking. All I had for dinner last night was a Slim Jim and some turkey stuffing."
"Sorry, Ben. Today's the day. Would you like me to use the dimmer?" Smozer got up, always excited to use the dimmer he'd installed the month before. It made him genuinely happy. The light in the room got six percent softer and he sat down again. Yes yes, that dimmer was all right.
Ben sighed. "Okay. So, yeah, top of the ninth and New York's leadoff hitter doubled. Spike Vail. Most obnoxious baseball player on the planet. Even you must have heard of him."
"I have. I very much enjoy his Office Depot commercials."
"Yeah. great," Ben said unhappily. "He's real sincere in those, too. Really believes in that toner. Not a money-grubber at all. Not in it for the glory, no sir."
"Remember what we said about anger," Smozer advised. "It's the icing on the sheet cake of despair."
"Yeah, I never understood what that meant, but whatever," Ben said. "Vail slid into second, practically took a bow for the crowd even though we were the home team, and then Tom blew the next guy away with that freaky fastball of his. I used to have dreams that thing was coming for me. Except it had a little white disco suit on it, and shoes. Should we talk about that? Because it creeps me out pretty bad."
"Perhaps next time," Smozer said. "You're very close now, Ben. Just tell me what happened next."
"Well," Ben said, trying to scrunch himself more deeply into his chair, "the next hitter was Al Arthurs. Swung on the first pitch. It came my way. I had to drift to my right a bit, toward the line. I had it all the way. And the ball went into my glove and I caught it, and, you know, I began to celebrate. I took the ball out of my glove and I...." He trailed off. His head hurt. He was sweating.
"Yes, what did you do, Ben?" Smozer asked, sensing a breakthrough was imminent.
"Well, I....I thought there were two outs. I thought we'd just won it all. So naturally, I was happy. I took off my cap and I threw it into the crowd. And then the ball...I figured the thing to do would be to throw it into the seats. So someone could have a souvenir he could treasure for ten minutes and then hawk on eBay."
"But there was only one out, yes, I see," Smozer said. "Based on my understanding of the game, it would not have been advisable to dispose of the ball."
"No, it wasn't the best thing," Ben said, opening his eyes and looking to the Mothra poster for strength. On the stereo, the lead singer of Supertramp was warbling about how all he needed was just a little bit of your time for him, a little bit of your life for him.
"Did you, in fact, Ben, throw the ball into the stands?"
"Yes," Ben said, taking a cushion from the sofa nearby and pressing it to his chest defensively. "Just into the first row, though. To some kid. How come I don't get any credit for tossing the ball to a kid? An ugly one, too! I still could have made the play on Vail if that little guttersnipe had given it back when I yelled at him to do it!"
"Easy, Ben, eeeeeeeeeeeasy," Smozer said soothingly. "So, Spike Vail was able to score?"
"Just barely," Ben recalled. "The thing is, some Cannons fan next to the kid yanked the ball away from him and tossed it back to me, but only after he called me an idiot. So technically, there was time to make the play. Except I....except I...." He couldn't go on. He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.
"Say it, Ben. say it....you're very close."
"I took off my jersey," Ben confessed in a laborious exhalation of woe. "I took off my jersey right after I tossed the ball into the stands. You know, in celebration. So that cost me a few seconds before I realized that there was only one out. And....Vail scored."
"So your throw wasn't on time," Smozer deduced.
"Not on time," Ben mused, feeling woozy, "well, it could have been, I guess. It's just that I was panicky and I threw the ball a bit too hard." He stopped there.
"Where exactly did it go?" Smozer asked.
"Section 10, about fifteen rows up," Ben said. "Box seats, right behind the plate."
"I see," Smozer said. "And so from that moment on, you've been haunted by—"
"Oh, God no, that wasn't what made me so depressed. That just tied the game. Jeez, the ninth inning thing could have happened to anybody. Happens all the time. My friend from the team, Harold, he once ran out of the dugout skipping and yelling and hollering and jumping on Ted Turocy for getting the last out of a no-hitter when he still had one more inning to go. Ted fell down and wrenched his ankle and had to come out of the game. So let's not hand me the World's Dumbest Man award just yet."
"So there was....a second incident," Smozer said. He had to dig out a second note pad from his desk drawer and shake his ballpoint pen again to get some more ink flowing.
"Yeah, you might say there was a second incident," Ben said, getting red in the face as he gritted his teeth in shame, self-loathing, and something that seemed to recall the buyer's remorse he'd suffered when he bought a ticket to see Home Alone 3.
"Okay, Ben, let's confront that second incident head on," Smozer said. "You can do it."
"It was the bottom of the eleventh," Ben said. "Still 3-3. Jason Blaze was on first with one man out. That brought me up to the plate. There was some booing, a lot of it in fact, but I didn't care. I was going to hit a homerun and end the game. I had just made up my mind to do it. I'd gotten into this freaky mental zone where there was just no other option. And the Guardians' pitcher, I forget who it was, some skinny pimply guy, he served up a total baked potato on a 1-1 count and I clouted it. Man, did I ever clout that thing. The crowd went nuts and I started trotting. I had never hit a ball so hard and so clean. I couldn't even feel the bat touch it, that's how sweet it was."
"I'm confused," Smozer said. "That doesn't seem—"
"So I started trotting around the bases," Ben said. "I guess I was in my own world a little bit. I mean, I'd never had a feeling like that before. I'd just won the Series. With a walk-off homerun. I was in a daze. I was on top of the world. Rare air, stuff like that. So I wasn't quite, ah, listening to the crowd."
"Couldn't hear them at all?" Smozer said. He had set his notepad down and was staring at his patient as if Ben were an unusual and brightly colored puffer fish gadding about inside a private aquarium.
"Nope," Ben said. He was now gazing into some undefined middle space, resolved to tell it all. He felt nothing anymore. "So when I looked up, I was kind of shocked to see nobody on the team surrounding home plate waiting to congratulate me. I figured there'd be a mob scene there, maybe people flinging themselves out of the stands, flash bulbs, the cops moving in to bash streakers over the head, the whole deal. But I just saw Jason Blaze, mouthing some words I didn't understand. And I saw the Guardians' catcher standing in front of the plate with a confused expression on his face. He was holding his mitt out and I sort of just....walked right into it. That's when I realized I may have made some kind of a mistake."
"Describe that 'mistake' for me," Smozer said. He had closed his own eyes in horror.
"Well, apparently I didn't quite get all of the pitch, because the ball landed on the warning track in left center and it got thrown back in and they got Jason trying to slide. That was the second out. And I was behind him. Pretty far behind him, actually. Our third base coach had been motioning for me to hold up at third but I never saw him. I was trying to be modest, you know. Keeping my head down. So the catcher was waiting for me with the ball for pretty much the whole ninety feet. And that was, you know, the third out. We didn't score. Then in the top of the twelfth, the Guardians scored....let me see....ten. Ten runs. Yeah, they got going pretty good." Ben sighed once more. "Wow. Actually, you know, that does feel like a great weight off my chest. I haven't spoken the words ever. I think that worked. I mean, I'm definitely going to throw up, that's a given, but progress was definitely just made." He leaned back in his chair, ran his hands through his hair once more, and his body became jelly-like, as if he had just come out of the ocean after spending four exhausting hours in it trying to scare people with a fake shark fin.
Smozer looked at him with penetrating eyes. His breathing seemed uneven.
"It was more than ninety feet, Ben," he whispered. "It was much more than that."
"Hmmm? Whassat?" Ben asked.
"The catcher had the ball even before you got to third base, you mind-numbingly silly man," Smozer said, rising out of his chair and dropping his note pad to the floor. "Haven't you ever had the decency to watch the tape? Are you such a cowardly lummox that you've been afraid to look at it? Well, I'll show it to you twenty-four hours a day if you like, you destroyer of dreams! You crusher of hopes!"
Ben got up too, backing away in terror. "What are you talking about? Are you nuts?!"
"I had four hundred dollars bet on that game, you dunderpate!" Smozer yelled, shaking with an impotent rage that curiously enough made him seem shorter. "I waited fifty-one years of my life for the Cannons to win the Series, and you sabotaged it all in ten seconds! You are Satan! Get out of my office, Beelzebub! I will now allow you to eat my soul as you ate the souls of all thinking baseball fans! Try not to despoil the history of the game on your way through the lobby! Do you think you can manage that, pea brain?! DO YOU THINK YOU CAN MANAGE THAT?!"
Ben ran for the door. Smozer tried to deliver a kick to his hind quarters but missed them by about three feet, causing him to lose his balance and fall to the floor. He tried to grab onto the diplomas hanging on the wall to halt his descent but managed only to take them all down with him. The carpet embraced him, as it had so many times before.
Ben tore through the waiting room, looking over his shoulder to see if Winchester Smozer, M.D., author of Embracing Insanity, was coming to murder him, perhaps by boiling him in melted cheese (as had been the case in one of Ben's many recent dreams about Jeff Goldblum). The last thing he ever heard inside that particular building was the voice of the old geezer who had befriended him fifteen minutes before. Now he was telling Ben that as a young man, he had been quite accomplished at wooing the young ladies, and he launched into a semi-coherent story involving a chance meeting with Stacy Keach on the San Francisco trolley system, the point of which Ben would never know.
2. Opportunity Knocks, Then Just Leaves Junk Mail
Tick's Bar on South Front Street was generally ranked at the bottom of all trusted consumer lists in the categories of service, atmosphere, and cleanliness, and the place would have almost certainly been torn down long ago had Jim Morrison not once stopped there during a U.S. tour and choked on a pickle. The pickle had been preserved in murky brine and now sat on the bar year after year as an index card taped to the jar described the incident in question and embellished it to no small degree. According to Tick's owner, Morrison had choked in the act of saving Lyndon Johnson's life from a terrorist bullet over beside the pinball machine. Johnson, it said on the index card, had been an "unusually good tipper".
Ben liked Tick's because it was literally right across the street from the front door of his apartment building. Once he had even closed his eyes and walked dead ahead across the street and parted the bar's doorway almost flawlessly, just barely bumping his left shoulder on the frame. Geographical convenience had, over the past fourteen months or so, more than made up for the fact that to order chicken fingers or even an imported beer at Tick's was to embark on a taste journey to the lower bowels of unpleasantness. Plus Harold liked it.
They sat there for a few hours after Ben left Dr. Smozer's office, Ben nursing a Budweiser and Harold, who didn't drink, sipping sweetened iced tea. They were the only patrons in the place except for a goat-faced man of about fifty who seemed to be talking to people who weren't there, pausing once in a while only to press a gentle kiss on the thermostat in the corner of the room. He was a regular too. A plate of soggy French fries sat on the bar between Ben and Harold, who shared them joylessly and berated themselves for not realizing in advance that there was not a chance in hell that Tick's would have ketchup.
"Here's what we could do," Ben was saying. "We could market a cereal that's like, every cereal thrown together. We could just call it Luck of the Draw. It would be the cereal for everyone. There'd be nothing in it that someone wouldn't like."
Harold mused upon it for a moment and wiped his greasy fingers on the front of his shirt, then scratched his balding head, leaving more grease there. His few years away from baseball had made him somewhat lumpy and hairless. Without a cap on his head and a bat in his hand, Harold looked like a bewildered, undercooked corn muffin. Once, his mother, in a fit of rage, had told him he looked like a pay phone, and despite the existential meaninglessness of that statement he often found himself staring fixedly at pay phones as his thoughts went to unfortunate places.
"I think the no-frills car is a better idea, if we could get the money together," he said.
"What was that again, I don't remember that," Ben said.
"You know, where we could send Ford or Chrysler the design for a car that didn't have anything but the essentials, you know, for poor people. So there'd be just a steering wheel and a big hump you could sit on, and no heat or anything, no glove compartment, no odometer, no turn signals. The Simplica."
"Yeah, the Simplica," Ben said, eyes narrowing in thought. "That has possibilities."
"I mean, a car can easily go on just three wheels too, there's almost no reason for the fourth one," Harold said, and stifled an iced tea burp. "It's just price gouging, really."
"Whatever we decide, we have to get moving on something," Ben said. "The wolf is at the door. I'm this close to having to find a job."
"Are you serious?" Harold asked in amazement. "You don't have anything left?"
Ben took a sip of his warm beer. "Nope. I just went in the hole for another three thousand."
"Since Tuesday? How?"
"There was this guy who explained to me how a lot of money could be made by selling refurbished kitchen appliances to foreign embassies," Ben explained. "A lot of these places are still in the dark ages. They'd kill for modern American technology. Africa and such."
"Oh, man," Harold said, shaking his head.
"Hey, the guy's plan is rock solid," Ben insisted. "You know how many countries Africa has? Every one of them has an embassy, and all the people who work in them want a decent cup of coffee when they roll into work in the morning. But what's gonna make that coffee? Huh? You tell me."
"You're just really not so good with money, Ben," Harold offered hesitantly. "Even I wouldn't go for that one."
"No, the embassy thing is gold, I think," Ben said, and repeated the sentence to convince himself. After a moment of silence, he simply said the word 'embassy' aloud. Harold said it too. Then they said it together, just a couple of times at first.
"Embassy. Embassy, embassy, embassy," they said in unison. It was the most fun they'd had in about two months.
They left the bar after dark, Ben weaving the tiniest bit because of the beer, and Harold weaving a bit because when he got too much food coloring in him his mysterious inner ear problem kicked in. They debated renting a kung fu movie but Harold decided to try and beat his wife home lest she be left alone and perhaps get it in her head to make another attempt at a dinner dish she called "pork loop". They separated in the parking lot, and Ben headed down to Walgreen's to buy some cherry ice cream. The evening was looking up. Cherry ice cream plus a jaunty turn through the upper reaches of his basic cable TV channel range was just the low-key adventure he was looking for on this night. His nerves were still a-jumble after the encounter with Crazy RageTime Doctor and a really embarrassing final scene to an episode of Will and Grace he'd watched at the bar.
Things seemed to be about to get even worse when he heard some idiot shouting his name from a block away. It was something that happened once a month or so. Since he'd gotten away from Kentucky and settled in Pennsylvania things had gotten much better, but he could still compile an impressive index of the profane shouts recently launched in his direction. The trend these days seemed to be to twist his last name into various disgusting words germane to both the sport of baseball and the act of mating with different animal species, whereas before, people had been content to simply call him vermin.
The voice that called to him now was high-pitched, squeaky, and desperate, not unlike Harold's. Ben stopped, having found that the best way to deal with street hecklers was to acknowledge their insult with a polite wave, then wait for them to turn and move on before flipping them both middle fingers. He saw a skinny dude running fast at him down the sidewalk, calling him "Mr. Glinton" again and again. This was unusual. More unusual still was the fact that between the words "Mister" and "Glinton", there was no reference whatsoever to his own buttocks.
The interloper caught up to him just as he stopped in front of the drug store. The poor guy had completely exhausted his breath in trying to catch up. He stood doubled over, hands on his knees, still repeating Ben's name. The guy was maybe twenty-four or twenty-five years old, still suffering from acne and a boyish face that might as well have had the phrase LEFT LANES GO THRU TO NEBRASKA, THE DAKOTAS crayoned on it.
"Yeah, can I help you in some way?" Ben asked him tiredly. "Sorry I ruined your life with the Guardians game. Try to focus on other things. Family, Jesus, and so forth."
"Oh no, Mr. Glinton, I don't care about that," said the stranger when he had regained his composure. "I want to talk to you about maybe working with you on something."
Ben's brain began to glow in big pulses of neon green. He couldn't help it. Anytime someone came to him with an investment opportunity, he became as pliable as a bowl of warm mustard. Since his semi-voluntary retirement from the Cannons he had lost scads of money on everything from internet cafes to the creation of a children's television show based on the fictional crime-solving adventures of a young Tori Amos. But he knew that it could all be turned around in one great stroke of genius. He had been repeatedly assured of this fact by a little man inside his head who often put similar horrifying ideas into his brain just before turning quickly away and pretending he did not speak English.
"All right, whaddya got?" Ben asked the mysterious Okie in his midst, entering Walgreen's and grabbing a green hand-basket. He wanted to pick up a Whitman's Sampler too in addition to the ice cream because he'd just read on a message board that they'd changed the map on the inside of the box and he thought that was probably a damned lie.
The guy clung to him up and down the aisles like paint on a wheelbarrow. "My name is Roy Skinla," he said, "and I cover Division I-A college football for the Harrisburg Daily Fact Holder."
Ben squinted at him. "That's the newspaper owned by the American Dental Association or something, isn't it?"
"That's only partially true," Roy corrected him, almost knocking over a display of parrot food as Ben rounded a tricky corner and threw some extra low grade laundry detergent into his basket. "Anyway, they found out you lived in the area, and they had the idea to send me out to get an interview."
"Sorry, pal," Ben said, examining the label on some abominable knockoff of Frosted Flakes, "I don't do interviews. Ever. Hold the basket for a sec, I need to dig out six of these beef ramen noodle things."
Roy took the basket, whose minimal weight still made his non-existent biceps strain worrisomely. "I know that, I've read a lot about you. All sorts of things. Wanna know how many post-season stolen bases you had in your career?"
"Um, I'm pretty sure it was none," Ben said, sorting through the chicken ramen, the shrimp ramen, and the pork ramen to get at the ultimate prize.
"Ah, right, none," Roy said. "But I know other things, too. I know you played the Mandy Patinkin part in your high school production of Yentl, and that you're allergic to oranges and pears."
Ben got down on his knees and buried his upper torso between two shelves in his quest for stiff processed noodles. "That's really disturbing," he said, his voice somewhat muffled.
"The reason I know all this is because I want to do something far better than an interview." He set the grocery basket on the floor and inhaled deeply. "I want to write your biography."
Ben emerged and stared at Roy as if he were a fingernail he had found inside his chocolate pudding. "My biography," Ben said. "You want to write my biography."
"Not only do I want to," Roy said with barely contained glee, "I'm already guaranteed an advance from Running Clam Press if I can give them the first two chapters!"
Ben got to his feet, one noodle packet shy of six. That meant he wouldn't get the full sale price and would have to pay eight cents a piece instead of six. "Okay," he said disbelievingly, "tell me how you possibly managed to extract a deal for the biography of a six-year player who supposedly set baseball back five decades."
"It couldn't have been easier," Roy said, flush with boyish excitement. "I couched it as a story of one man trying to overcome a legacy of shame suffered all because of one night. Failure is a big seller nowadays. You know, real down-low confessional stuff that makes people seem human and foibled."
"Terrific," Ben said, turning away and moving toward the bathroom supplies, letting Roy earn his way by carrying the basket. "Only problem is, I'm not trying to overcome anything. I'm fine with what happened. I thought I wasn't, but since the only two psychiatrists I've been to about it have either gone on trial for mail fraud or tried to kill me, I think I'll just work it all out for myself. Alone. In peace."
"Well, it doesn't have to be a very dramatic book," Roy told him, holding the basket out so Ben could drop some blueberry lip balm into it. Winter would be here in only six months. "I just played it up that way to get the advance. The important part is, I'd love to have a major publishing credit to my name and move on to bigger things, and if you're any kind of ex-athlete, I'm sure you wouldn't mind the extra cash. I'd even let you cross out anything I write that you don't like."
Ben wandered up to the cash register and emptied his stuff onto the counter. "Frankly," he said, "I don't even like people knowing I'm still alive. So unless you end the book by telling people I drove off the edge of the Snake River Canyon in a go-cart, it ain't gonna happen." He gave a smile to the cute cashier, who had perhaps twenty years on her to his thirty-five. Stranger things had happened, so he figured a smile couldn't hurt. It did; the cashier began to bring a knife with her to work for protection from that moment on.
Roy, not having thought his presentation through much, tried to come up with new angles of attack but couldn't produce much. "You know, I'm a really good writer," he said. "I won all kinds of essay contests in college."
"You say that as if college was in the past," Ben said. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-three," Roy said.
"Not even a master's degree, eh?" Ben chided. "Hired right out of Boise State. Even I have a master's degree."
"You do?" Roy said, eyes wide.
Ben sighed. "No, you teenager, of course I don't. I thought you said you knew everything there was to know about me."
"I know enough," Roy said. "Couldn't you look at this as giving a young sports writer the chance to bring the public a side of Ben Glinton they've never known? Don't you want them to see you as a human being instead of a joke? Wouldn't you like to set the record straight?"
"The record is perfectly straight," Ben told him as they left the pharmacy. "I did what I did. It could have actually even been worse. I had a mild head cold that night. I could have sneezed on someone. But I didn't." He frowned. "What was my point again?" He started to move down the sidewalk.
"Please, just take my card," Roy pleaded, and he forced it into Ben's hand. "There's money in it for you. We'd split the royalties right down the middle. "
"I'll tell you what," Ben told him, peering at the card, which simply bore Roy's name and phone number at the newspaper, as well as a handwritten advisory to speak loudly because his line was defective. "You're a good guy, you're a go-getter, you're eleven years old. When I reach the absolute, one-hundred-percent-certain, very very last straw of misery and desperation, I'll let you write about me. Until then, I just want to be left alone unless you want to be my Walgreen's assistant full time." He did Roy the courtesy of shoving the business card into the pocket of his sweatpants and gave him a little salute of goodbye.
"If I don't hear from you in a few weeks, I'll have to pitch a book about Spike Vail!" Roy called feebly after him. "I know he's looking for someone to do it, but I was holding out for your story!"
"The biography of Spike Vail, that'll be a big hit!" Ben shouted back as he darted out of the path of an oncoming Volvo. "Part One: How My Ego Swallowed the Staten Island Ferry!"
With that, he was gone. Young Roy stood alone on the sidewalk with nothing to do with the rest of the evening. He walked the streets weighing his options for a good hour or so. Go to a movie? Check out a bar? Hit the health club? He wound up in Walgreen's for three hours.
3. Nothing Good Ever Began in a Beaker
The next day saw a jittery mood settle over a shining industrial complex on the east side of the city. In the middle of the complex sat You Like? Laboratories, a division of Shinjoda Beneficial Industries. From these labs had sprung some of the most innovative products of the twenty-first century, funded by riches from the prosperous Japanese auto industry and introduced to the public by the marketing savvy of two guys who used to work for the Golf Channel. It was not the kind of place where tarnished ex-ballplayers were usually found, but Ben Glinton was in the process of skewing the traditional Shinjoda demographic entirely.
At nine a.m. sharp he stood with twelve other venture capitalists of varying expertise inside Examination Area 7, a cavernous, spotless room filled with gleaming scientific apparatus of varying danger levels. Everyone, including Ben, had donned a suit and tie for the occasion, although Ben's had been pieced together from four different suits, and his shoes did not quite match. The group featured a lot of gray hair; Ben was easily the youngest among them. Each of the investors had sunk at least twice as much money into the research and development of the product they were about to experience as Ben had. Somehow they were able to detect this about him without asking a single question. It was probably the way he always seemed to be scanning the room for some sort of free breakfast layout that gave his relative poverty away. Ben was subconsciously sticking close to a bearded man in his sixties who someone else had referred to as "Professor". Knowing there was someone with a college degree in the group made Ben feel much better about his investment. He tried not to notice the nervous, spectacularly bespectacled gentleman to his left who seemed to be intent on gnawing his fingernails down to his palm.
Two young Japanese scientists in lab coats appeared at 9:07, pushing a table on wheels toward the gathering. Everyone fanned around it. Some objects atop the table were covered by a smooth white sheet.
Scientist #1 offered a quick bow to the group. "Welcome, focused and smiling investors," he greeted them. "We so glad to see you appear standing in front of table with cloth on it today. We have worked pleasingly on product which will be shown to your colorful eyes at this time. Many money has been spent by you, and we wish for you to clash hands in sound to honor both vision and on-time achieving."
Everyone looked at each other, relatively sure they got his meaning, and they clapped briefly and modestly.
"Yes yes, this is where," the scientist said meaninglessly. "Two years before today, we imagine product based on simple observation: beer more vital to happiness of American man than even sun rays or wife love. So we start to come up with various imaginary method to bring beer into him."
Scientist #2 removed the white cloth from the table to reveal three dinner plates. On each sat a tasty-looking item of old-fashioned American comfort food. There was a nice fat steak with red juice leaking out of it, a plump hot dog nestled in a toasted bun, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut diagonally, crusts untrimmed. Off to the side there was a six-pack of what appeared to be normal bottled beer, but as Ben and the other investors knew, there was nothing normal about it. It was, to put it simply:
"Magic Thrill Beer," said Scientist #2, lifting one of the bottles from its plain black cardboard casing. It had no label yet. "Inspiration is a similar item, beloved by your country, which cover ice cream in bowl, then harden into chocolate shell for mouth consumption."
Everyone in the group applauded again and crowded in a little closer as the idea that would soon make them all billionaires entered its final phase of production right before their lusty stares. Scientist #2 twisted open the bottle and let the cap drop onto the table. He then tilted the neck gently over the wiener sitting unsuspectingly on the plate within its maternal bun. Beer-ish liquid dribbled out in a docile stream and covered the hot dog from head to foot. The crackling of fizz was seen and heard. An ambrosial smell hung in the lab, that of rich, well-aged hops walking straight up to the meat of a dead pig and saying Let's dance, baby face.
Scientist #1 grinned and pressed his hands together in anticipation. "Now you remain quiet and wait less than time it take to flush average toilet," he said. Ben felt the same tingle in his feet that he had felt when the petting zoo he had partially funded opened on that very first day back in March, accepting a wave of excited children. There had been nervousness, excitement, and dreams of riches that day too. It had ended with nine pre-schoolers being treated for mysterious ear rashes. Ben had quickly lost ninety percent of his twenty-five hundred dollar investment, but that initial rush of discovery and naked greed had been worth every penny.
After fifteen seconds or so, Scientist #2 lifted the hot dog off the plate and held it out to a woman investor with steely eyes the size of BB pellets. She took an impressively ambitious bite of the hot dog, which now bore a thick yellowish coating of totally immobile beer sauce. After giving it three or four chews, she nodded excitedly. "It's delicious!" she announced. Everyone applauded one more time in relief and appreciation of this vital moment in history. After hundreds of years of unfulfilled promise, beer had at last become a condiment, and it involved not just a refreshing taste but a chemical reaction of some kind, making it educational as well. It was immediately clear to all of the investors, Ben included, that none of them would ever again know the cruel indignity of having to live more than fifty feet from a major ocean.
"Now you all try beer on expensive sizzle steak," Scientist #1 urged them with barely contained glee. The man with the eyeglass lenses as thick as a standard Bible stepped forward, and a knife and fork were thrust into his hands, which shook now not with fear but excitement. Scientist #2 had already smothered the steak with Magic Thrill Beer, and it was all he could do to wait a full fifteen seconds before he could pounce on it.
"What a time to be alive," the Professor noted to the gathering.
"If we could cut the waiting time from fifteen seconds to twelve, we're looking at a thirty percent margin jump," noted someone else, and there were general frumphs of agreement.
The bespectacled man jammed his fork through the hardened beer and into the luscious steak, commencing to saw the knife back and forth across its tender surface. Almost instantly, a curl of smoke rose up from it. At first Ben thought it was an optical illusion, or maybe leftover vigor from the original grilling, wherever that had taken place. But no, there was more smoke as the knife cut boldly through the beer shell.
"This is very odd," said the guinea pig with no small measure of concern.
"Do not worry," Scientist #1 said. "Reaction of steel and ingredients in beer shell combine to create danger amount of intense heat, but everything all right."
"But I can feel my fingers getting hot," the man replied even as he kept cutting. "It's getting uncomfortable."
Scientist #2 smiled and shook his head. "No alarm to be caused today or any other day. Natural phenomenon when we dabble with necessary."
Ben, who had opened another one of the beers and begun to raise it to his lips, bent over to get a better look at the steak and nearly had his eyebrows singed when the thing suddenly erupted into flame. Teeny-Eyed Woman yelped and Frightening Glasses Man's arm flew up in the air, his shirt cuff on fire. He waved it around madly and began to run in a tight circle as Scientist #1 ran over to the wall to grab a fire extinguisher which hadn't been inspected in nineteen years.
Bedlam ensued for the eleventh time that month inside the lab. The investors backed away in horror as the man's arm, and soon the rest of his body above the waist, was covered with expired blue foam from the extinguisher, which the scientist controlled with the precision of a gunslinger. He had obviously had to go through this drill before.
"No, you no drink in natural state!" Scientist #2 suddenly yelled at Ben, who had ingested some of the beer from the bottle in his hand. "It cause lung deflation, make scary ghosts in vision!" But it was too late; by the time the bottle had been snatched from Ben's hand, he felt a little funny and needed to sit down. There seemed to be two of everybody, and everybody's double had a stretchy orange head.
Now the first scientist had trained the fire extinguisher on the offending steak itself, but he was having a dickens of a time actually crushing the flame. It had a fondness for the beer shell and really seemed to thrive on its every molecule. There were shouts of anger from the scurrying investors and threats of both lawsuits and vomiting. The man in glasses had collapsed in a chair, dazed and covered in foam that smelled like the inside of a camel. Ben was lucky enough to find the comfort of a chair before every color in the lab inverted at once, causing him to lose his balance. At the same moment, the ghoulish aftertaste of the beer treated his taste buds to a sensation comparable to the experience of licking a television screen.
"I don't feel so good," Ben said almost pleasantly, having lapsed into a mild sedative state of shock as the wildly unnatural ingredients inside the beer helped itself to the good stuff which controlled his cerebral cortex. An eighty-year old captain of industry who was now officially out a half million bucks tried to catch him but lacked the upper body strength to do so. Despite news accounts to the contrary which would appear the next day, Ben did not lapse into a coma. He merely fell to the floor in a quiet, well-behaved heap. Even bare seconds before he lost consciousness for the next forty-five minutes, he still clung to the childlike belief that You Like? Laboratories had a hit on its hands.
"Hey, that guy's stealing microscopes!" someone shouted, pointing at the Professor.
"That's absurd!" the Professor cried, backing toward the nearest exit. Two of the objects in question fell out of his sports jacket and his eyes got round and panicked like a raccoon's. He turned and ran for it as both Shinjoda scientists chased after him vengefully. This was the thanks they'd gotten for going through the trouble of mangling the English language just to conform to their investors' clichéd image of them as dedicated but simple-minded Japanese tech nerds. When they caught the Professor, they'd have to restrain themselves from beating him silly with their master's degrees in American gothic literature.
The notes and materials that went into the creation of Mutant Beer Sauce were quietly burned that afternoon as Ben Glinton lay morosely in his hospital bed. He was kept under observation for several hours and advised to stay away from carbonated beverages and incandescent lighting for six months. He pretended to be a homeless Swede so as not to have to pay.
He was trying to make tater tots on the stove in his dirty kitchen the next day as he called Roy at the newspaper.
"This is Roy," his future biographer answered the phone within his cubicle, whose third and fourth walls were still on backorder at the Gettysburg warehouse. It was the first call he'd gotten in several days. He assumed it would be his editor demanding an explanation for another disastrous typographical error.
Ben shook the frying pan in which he had condemned so many tater tots to uneven browning and turned the burner to Xtra Hi to bring the revolting process to a conclusion once and for all. "This is Ben Glinton," he said. "I've decided that the book thing you were talking about the other night at Applebee's should be done after all."
"I think we were at Safeway," Roy said, "but this is terrific! I promise you, you won't be disappointed. What made you change your mind?"
"The children," Ben said. "The children have a right to know what really happened that night at the stadium. Future generations. I saw a kid on the street yesterday, and I wept. Now, about that money you mentioned...."
"Yeah," Roy said, literally moving to the edge of his seat with excitement, "I just have to submit a couple of chapters to Running Clam Press and they'll get the financial ball rolling. It shouldn't take me long to whip those into shape."
"So Running Clam Press is the best you could do?" Ben asked, dumping his wee potato cubes onto a paper towel, which the grease from the pan devoured in about two seconds, leaving the cubes sitting on the surface of the countertop itself. "I've never heard of them."
"Well, they mostly publish zoology textbooks," Roy told him, "but they're anxious to move into other areas." Pressed for time as he spoke, he was simultaneously trying to type up an article about a high school lacrosse player who had lost a pinkie toe to a huge chunk of hail, and he realized he had just spelled the kid's name wrong three different times in three different ways, somehow forming three different derogatory terms for Europeans. He decided to turn his attention entirely to the man who was going to make his fortune in the cutthroat world of cheapie sports biographies.
"So how do we get started on this masterpiece?" Ben asked as he poured himself some ginger ale. He had a disturbing mental image of his face plastered on a book jacket and gawking idiotically out the display window of a bus station gift shop.
"Actually, if you have a minute, there's just some quick background info I want to get," Roy said, flipping open a notepad. "First of all, where were you born?"
"Rochester," Ben told him.
"Okay. And you were originally drafted by the Montreal Edmontons, right?"
"Right. Interesting organization. Their press guide was always quoting from the Koran."
"And from there you were traded to the Cannons system."
"No, there was actually three weeks in there when I played for a team overseas," Ben recalled dimly. "In England. The West Brighton Curvers. I remember the club folded after eight games. They never scored a single run. There were rumors of a curse."
"But right after that, the Cannons signed you."
"No, after that the Curvers' entire roster was bought by a two-team winter league in south Texas and our name was changed to the Equatorial Baseball Brigade. We all came back to America, played ten games or so against the Plano Minutemen, lost them all, scored two runs. After that I mostly gave clarinet lessons for a couple of years."
"Oh, this is good stuff," Roy said, scribbling furiously. "Do you think any of the semi-pro guys you played with are still around to be interviewed?"
"Strangely enough, I know exactly where they all are," Ben said. "The winter league disbanded and the players pooled their money and produced a musical that ran for about two years on Broadway. They're all working for Sony now."
"Great!" Roy said. At the height of his note-taking enthusiasm, Gary Wayne, the bullying oaf from Horoscopes, walked by and threw an empty Big Mac wrapper onto Roy's keyboard, muttering "Here ya go, Iowa Boy" as he did so. That Gary Wayne really mushed his marshmallows. Roy would show him one day.
Ben didn't like where all this nosy research was going. He popped a tater tot into his mouth and chewed cynically. "So is this going to be one of those nice sepia-tinged sports bios about overcoming this and that and the other thing," he asked, "or are you going to spend half the book talking about that night against the Guardians? I'll back out if this turns out to be a hatchet job, or if there's all kinds of babbling from my ex-wife, not that you could ever track her down in the Israeli army."
"Oh no, honest to goodness no," Roy assured him. "I mean, they told me the unflattering bios sell about fifteen times better than the nice ones, but I said I wouldn't do that kind of thing. I wouldn't want anyone doing that to me. I remember when I was in seventh grade, and I passed my yearbook around for people to sign, and some girls wrote nasty things about the sweaters I wore, and I just felt so—"
"Yeah, well, there's no need for us to dwell on things that happened to you two weeks ago," Ben said. "I guess I'm just looking for some kind of evidence that you're not going to In Cold Blood me."
A bell went off inside Roy's head and on the microwave oven in the break room at the exact same time. "I've got it," he said. "I was going to open up the book with the crowd filing into the stadium that night of game seven, but as a good faith gesture, why don't we start it off by showing you today, doing charity work? Right from the first page it'll get people to like you. How does that sound?"
Ben squeezed the grease from another tater tot and looked up at the ceiling quizzically. "Um, charity work?" he asked, trying not to sound completely flummoxed.
"Yeah," said Roy. "You still have a hand in all that from your playing days, right?"
"Um...yes, very much so," Ben improvised. "Of course. A lot of people think we do all that stuff for the photo ops and because the teams make us do it. But the exact opposite is true. I'm still up to my rubbery butt in charity. I actually have something tonight. I should be getting dressed, in fact."
"Great, I have off tonight!" Roy said, prematurely smelling both a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and an Oscar for Best Screenplay, Material Adapted from Another Medium. "I can show up wherever you're going and cover it, and chapter one will be halfway done."
"Yes indeed," Ben said, swallowing the last of his lunch. "That's definitely the way to go. I've got to find the address of the place on the internet, and then what I'll do is call you back and tell you where to meet me."
"Okay, I'll be here all day," Roy told him. "If I'm not at my desk, I'll be in the break room, and if I'm not in the break room, I'm just down at the soda machine and I'll be right back."
Ben hung up the phone and rubbed his unshaven face. For the third time this year, a harmless lie to someone he'd just met was going to cause him to have to create a fake charity. But no, he vowed to himself, this time he wasn't going to waste his precious money having fictitious banners made or hiring students from the local community college to portray blind people. This was getting out of hand. He would put on his thinking cap and methodically grind out a solution, in just the same way he used to methodically grind himself out of a batting slump by waving his bat wildly at any pitch that was even remotely close to the plate. Obviously the whole process would go much more smoothly if a two-hour nap refreshed his brain clankings, so he started planning for that right away.
4. It's Easy to Fool People if You Have a Heart of Darkness
Ever-reliable, ever-pliable Harold lived three miles away from Ben in a very nice new suburban enclave called Windemere Hillswallowsea. Ben got in his weepy Ford Escort at six-thirty and weaved and swerved over there without calling first, as was his usual modus operandi. Harold was almost never engaged in anything important anyway; after work he just tended to come home, kick up his feet, and age poorly. Ben left his car in the driveway and trotted up to the front door, grabbing the mail on his way in order to score some good neighbor points. He did not realize it was outgoing mail. He knocked several times, tapping one foot impatiently.
Harold eventually opened the door and poked his head out. "Oh, hey Ben," he said. "I can't come out and do anything tonight. We have the police over here talking to us about those two weird ritual murders that happened in the neighborhood. It's pretty scary."
"Well, that's fairly horrifying," Ben agreed, "but I have myself a bit of a dilemma," Ben told him. "I told you about the guy who wanted to write my biography, right?"
"Yeah, that's great," Harold said with a smile devoid of all irony. "When does that whole process start?"
"Tonight, in fact," Ben said. "Which brings me to my point. Does your kid still have the flu?"
Harold tilted his head, not certain he had heard Ben correctly. "Gordy? Um....yeah, he's in bed. Temperature's down to almost normal, though. He'll probably go back to school tomorrow or the next day. Why?"
Ben rubbed his hands together. "Yeah, I'm gonna need him to pretend he's dying of something so that my biographer thinks I'm visiting him as a charity case."
Harold, who had heard descriptions of far stranger schemes tumble from Ben's lips in recent years, simply looked pained. "Ben...can't this wait? I want to hear what the police have to tell us. The murders keep getting closer to our street..."
"It won't take too long, and the guy is coming over here in like fifteen minutes. All you have to do is tell Gordy to keep kind of motionless in bed and look sick and pale. He's unnaturally skinny, isn't he? I seem to remember him being unnaturally skinny. With a little bean head."
"Well..." Harold began, "...what are we going to tell Deenie?"
"Just tell her I'm visiting Gordy out of concern, you know," Ben offered.
"She's definitely not going to believe that," Harold said.
"Then we'll say you invited me over for dinner. You haven't eaten, right? What are you going to have, I'm starving anyway."
"I don't know," Harold said with tangible fear, "but I saw her scooping out a melon and putting raw turkey into it. This was the solution you came up with? A lie? Using Gordy?"
Ben pouted. "I am not a theoretical physicist, Harold. I am not an expert in space geometry. I never claimed to have an IQ of six hundred. I'm just a guy who's trying to keep from having to get a job and has to trick some sportswriter into thinking I'm a good person to do it. I don't think a court in the world would put me in jail for not graduating from Yale with a degree in computational mathema—"
"Okay, okay," Harold said, stepping back to let him inside. "We can try something, maybe it'll work."
"Just one thing," Ben said. "I don't think this guy is gonna recognize you from the Cannons, but your last name's on your mailbox. That should probably come off there."
"Those letters would have to be scraped off, Ben," Harold said. "It's next to impossible."
"Okay, so do you maybe have a black marker, one of those thick ones?"
"I doubt it."
"Harold, you work for a company that makes them. I know they give you a case every Christmas."
Harold closed his eyes. "If this goes wrong somehow, Deenie might not let me hang around with you anymore. She keeps giving me these ultimatums."
"If, schmiff," Ben said, stepping in and closing the door behind him. "Let's get this done, we'll have dinner, then we'll go bowling and ask about that dented lane special you've been wondering about for so many years."
"Hi there, Gordy," Roy Skinla of the Harrisburg Daily Fact Holder was saying to Harold's son a half hour later, after the eleven year old had been briefed and debriefed and issued a written quiz about his responsibilities regarding the evening's shameful deception. The always adventurous Gordy had agreed to play along on the condition that his father take him some upcoming weekend to the National Ice Cream Museum in Scranton, whose cafeteria featured a banana split that levitated. Roy and Ben and Harold stood beside his bed, looking down at him in carefully measured pity and empathy as he cowered beneath sheets bearing the faces of some superheroes whose licensing fees had definitely seen better days. One of the men was wondering what sort of heartless, absent God could possibly strike down such an innocent young lad with Kretzig-Beckler Syndrome, while the other two were trying to remember whether it was Jim Kretzig or Bobby Beckler who batted ninth for the Norristown Conjurers of the Lesser Pennsylvania Instructional League from 1997 to 1998. Either way, Roy had bought the illusion hook, line, and sinker. He hadn't seen much real pain in his sheltered twenty-three years and had never even been to a funeral, so he was pretty overwhelmed as soon as he set foot in Gordy's room.
"Hello, sir," Gordy replied to his greeting and offering up a weak hand, which Roy shook ever so gently. Gordy's mouth sported not one but two thermometers. Harold removed one of them and examined it with a worried look on his face.
"Yes, ninety-eight point six," he said with a sigh. "Very worrying. I'd better call Doctor Yastrzemski sometime this month."
"Doctor Yastrzemski, good man," Ben added, nodding assuredly. "I've met him many times during my charity visits to the eye ward."
"I'm hungry, Dad," Gordy said, a little off-script but still convincingly. "Can I have a hot dog?"
"I don't know if your system can take that right now," Harold said. "Maybe when your visitors leave. Look here, son, this is baseball superstar Ben Glinton. Your wish has come true!"
Gordy did his best to pretend he didn't know this kind-hearted stranger at all, though he had of course met him several times at the house. He was best known to Ben as the man who had spent an admirable amount of time one afternoon adjusting the basketball hoop in the driveway so that Gordy could attempt a slam dunk just like his real hero, T.K. "To Dunk a Mockingbird" Corkiston. Other memories of his father's slightly younger, slightly messier friend included an accident-laden overnight campout at Shenandoah National Park and a birthday party at Chuck-e-Cheese's during which Ben had loudly declared the pizza to be the best thing he had ever tasted in his life.
"Hello, sir," Gordy said. "Have you come to watch me deal with the pain?"
"There'll be no more pain in your future, kid, not if I have anything to say about it," Ben predicted boldly. "By summertime I just know you'll be out of this bed and tossing around a baseball of your own to kids much, much sicker than you."
"So, he just sent you a postcard asking you to come and you showed up?" Roy asked Ben, taking his notepad from his vest pocket.
"I have a policy, don't I, Gordy," Ben said, patting the child's head, which had been treated with warm water to produce the desired shiny effect. "Any kid who wants me to visit him on his deathbed, I'm there. Right, kid?"
"Yay!" Gordy said, starting to enjoy himself. This had all the fun of telling his Mom and Dad that he was too sick to go to school, but with even more adults in the room to lie to.
"I guess it's easier when the kid happens to live three miles away," Roy noted.
"Three miles, ten miles, no distance is too far for a young fan," Ben said. "Kid, how'd you like an autographed cap?"
"Okay," Gordy said. He tried rolling his eyes around in his sockets briefly to improve his performance but then stopped when he thought it would be a little too much like that awful Keanu Reeves guy. God, he was just so terrible.
"What are the symptoms of Kretzig-Beckler Syndrome, for my notes," Roy asked Harold quietly, most disturbed by the rolling of the child's eyes.
"I've been reading about it in my off hours," Ben said before Harold could say something to queer the deal. He took a Cannons cap which he had bought at the mall that afternoon from his back pocket and scribbled his name on it. "It can be anything from a chronic light fever to an unquenchable desire for meat, as we just saw."
"Eventually his kidneys begin to migrate unless we give him constant penicillin," Harold offered.
"Medicine," Ben said sadly. "It can cure sickness, but nothing else." He handed the hat to Gordy.
"This logo is out of date," the boy noted. "They got a new one last year."
"Yeah, it really helped, too," Ben said cynically.
A quiet moment passed. Harold leaned over and put the hat on Gordy. Ben had been clever enough to get the extra large one to make his head seem the size of a grape.
"Well, we should probably be thinking about wrapping this up," Ben said. "There's no need to excite Gordy too much."
"Why don't we play a game?" Gordy asked, sitting up in bed. "Ah, well, yeah, you know, Mr. Pillick doesn't need a bunch of strangers hanging around his house all night," Ben said. "You take care now, Gordy. You know where to reach me. Obviously you do, because that's how you contacted me for this charity visit. It's not exactly a state secret where to find me when people are in need. I practically have a web site."
"But Mr. Glinton, if you played a game with Gordy for a couple of hours, my wife and I could have an evening together when the police leave," Harold suggested.
"Why are the police here anyway?" Roy asked.
"The Pool Skimmer Strangler," Ben informed him. "He's getting kind of close."
"Why don't we stay?" Roy suggested. "I really have nowhere to be, and I could use some quiet time to compile an outline for the book."
"Please, Mr. Glinton?" Gordy asked. "It would make me get better so I won't die so fast."
Ben plastered an icy grin on his face. "Ah, yeah, anything you say, kid. I'm sure someone somewhere will record Scarface for me." He elbowed Harold, who was already on his way out the door. Ben made a mental note to destroy his friend's life sometime this week, preferably before daylight savings time began. As Roy sat down in one corner, rolling up his shirt sleeves, Gordy scampered out of his bed with alarming energy.
"Be careful there, Gordy," Ben advised him nervously, "use your spine spasms wisely, because they could, you know, disappear all at once."
"He doesn't seem that sick, really," Roy said softly to Ben as Gordy dug through his closet, which bore pictures of various baseball superstars, none of them Ben Glinton or even anyone who even shared either one of his initials. "I think it's possible his father tricked you just to get you to come over here."
"Yeah, that guy has some shifty eyes, there's no doubt," Ben agreed. "I hate to cause trouble, though. One round of Yahtzee and we'll be out of here."
Gordy emerged from the messy closet with a colorful box that seemed a little too heavy for him. He set it down on a card table beside the bed. "Let's play APBA Football!" he said. "I'll bet I can beat you."
"Football, yeah, sure," Ben said. Gordy sat down in a green plastic chair beside the card table. With no other chair available, Ben lowered himself onto the edge of the child's bed. "What do we do, do we make one of those little paper things and push it across the table and try to get it to hang over the edge? That's what we used to do in school."
"No way," Gordy said, removing the top of the box and pulling out what looked to be hundreds of playing cards, a group of large charts, and an artful representation of a football field. "You have to play a whole game like the pros do, and call all the plays and like that."
"Hmmm," Ben said, thinking that Parcheesi would have been more suited to his taste. He had really put a hurting on some Parcheesi people in his day.
"First you have to pick a team and fill out your starting offense and defense," Gordy said, taking red and white dice from the box and setting a scoresheet and pencil in front of Ben. "I'm gonna be the Miami Stimuli because they won the Super Bowl last year."
"Well, that doesn't seem totally fair, but whatever," Ben said, sorting through the stack of rubber banded cards. "I guess I'll be the Portland Rabids. Good cheerleaders."
"Oh man, you're in trouble," Gordy cackled as he began to sort through his team. "They have the worst linebackers ever."
Ben shuffled through the cards in his hand and saw all the names of last year's Rabids represented. Below each name was listed the player's position and a simple grid of red and black numbers. "So how does this work?" he asked. "All the players do different things, they're not all the same?"
"Right," Gordy said, dividing his players between offense and defense. "The better players have higher ratings and stuff. After you write them down, we kick off and then we choose plays and roll the dice and go by the player ratings to see how much yardage they ran for or whether a pass was complete and stuff."
"Good God," Ben said, worried. "For every play? How long is this gonna take?"
"As long as it takes for me to kick your butt!" Gordy said cheerfully. "I think I'll start Brien Martin at quarterback instead of Jello Anthony. It's not fair that Brien Martin never got to start just because he kept throwing to the other team."
Ben did a double-take when he came across a wide receiver's card bearing the name Spike Vail. "Oh God, I forgot he plays football too," Ben groaned. "Hey Gordy, he has an 'A' on his card, what does that mean?"
"It means he's real real good," Gordy said. "Just like he was last year."
Ben shook his head and dropped the card off to the side of the miniature football field, which Gordy was adorning with a little plastic yard marker. Sighing and feeling his whole night go up in smoke little by little, he began to go through his cards to select a starting lineup, going out of his way to leave Spike Vail out of the equation.
"Hey Roy, do us a favor and grab us a couple of Yoo Hoos or something from downstairs," Ben said. Roy jumped to his feet eagerly. "I got a sick kid here who needs hydration."
"Sure," Roy said and disappeared, way too excited to be out of his apartment for the evening. His roommates were both jerks, and girls still avoided him like the plague for his boyish face, freckles, and habit of constantly smiling when this life was so obviously such a miasma of despair.
As soon as Roy was out of the room, Ben looked at Gordy sternly. "All right, kid, is there like a super-speed version of this game we can do so I can get out of here?"
Gordy shook his head and straightened his cards and looked through the playing boards until he found one bearing various kickoff results. "Dad said you had to stay a while so he and Mom can kiss and stuff or he'd tell that man you're with that you teach people how to read on Saturdays. He even picked out a place you would have to show up at."
Ben gritted his teeth. "Pillick, you weak-hitting snake," he whispered. "All right, all right. Let's just move this along, huh? I'm thirty-five years old, I don't feel like playing board games with my nights. I have pillows to cry into."
Ben Glinton was hunched over the miniature football field on the card table before him like a man who had just bet his life savings on Red 21 at four in the morning and was waiting for the poker-faced croupier to spin the roulette wheel. The remains of five empty Yoo Hoo bottles sat at his left elbow, and at his right elbow was the scoresheet which described in exhaustive statistical detail the night's third and final football showdown between himself and the eleven year old budding tactician Gordy Pillick. Ben's Houston Mudthumpers were down to Gordy's L.A. Smooths 27-21 with almost no time remaining on the game clock—represented by full and half slash marks on the sheet.
"Come on, Ben, pick a play and stick with it," Roy Skinla was telling him from twelve inches away. A couple of hours before, he had taken a chair from the kitchen and set it up as close as possible to the action, and he now seemed almost as hypnotized by it as Ben himself. His eyes darted from Gordy to Ben and back again. Gordy had selected his defensive call and now could only wait for Ben to either complete his freakish comeback or fail trying.
"Don't pressure me!" Ben hissed, wiping his forehead for the seventh time in eighteen minutes. This foolish rube from the Midwest didn't seem to realize how much he had scratched and clawed not only to get back into this game but to win the last one and draw even with Gordy, one to one. Gordy's willingness to throw deep on third and short and give the ball to obscure running backs again and again had flummoxed him for the past five hours. Oh, the kid was going down for good all right. It had to be done. This last play—a 4th down and goal from the runt's 6 yard line—had to assure it. It had to. Meanwhile, Gordy, cool as a Fender guitar case, just sat there smugly.
"What is that incessant tapping sound?" Ben blurted out just as he was getting comfortable with selecting an intended receiver.
"Um, Ben, you're doing that with the pencil," Roy pointed out.
"Okay, okay, we're moving, we're moving," Ben said, taking three deep breaths. "I still have one time out left, right?"
"Doesn't matter if you don't score on this play," Gordy said. He had changed into his polka dot pajamas at about nine, and given up any pretense of illness at about ten-thirty. Roy had not really noticed.
"Okay," Ben said. "I know your feeble little child's brain can't handle the fact that I could possibly run straight into the line in this situation, but that's just what I'm gonna do, mini-man. Inside run, Jeff Downey, and let's see your defense, short stack!"
Gordy grinned and bounced up and down in his plastic chair. "I played a nine man line!" he shouted. "Gotcha!"
"Oh, you little neckless imp," Ben said, picking up his dice shaker and rattling the contents within, a sound that had become hauntingly rhythmic to everyone in the room and to Deenie Pillick, who just wanted to get some sleep but could hear that infernal chicka-chicka-chicka through the wall every single time. She vowed to redouble her efforts to believe that her husband's irritating friend Ben had some minor but influential part in everything from rising divorce rates in the United States to the disturbing rollbacks of individual freedoms in Vladimir Putin's new Russia.
With a decisive flick of the wrist, Ben released his two zealous dice upon the table as an imagined capacity crowd rose to their feet in agonized suspense. The dice crashed selflessly into one of the empty Yoo Hoo bottles and caromed back onto the football field. The red one settled showing a 6, while the smaller white one kept spinning defiantly, causing Ben's eyes to glow a fiery orange as his blood pressure rose to levels previously not known since his last dozen or so phone fights with his ex-wife. In his tortured mind he imagined his running back (16 carries for 86 yards so far) daring to dart to the outside with brilliant improvisation and stiff-arming the entire Smooths secondary in an attempt to hit paydirt. Roy put his hands to his head and sucked his breath in as his mouth formed a gaping O.
The white die came to rest. It was a 2. Ben felt his lungs leap into his mouth as he checked Jeff Downey's card to see what the injury-prone and devoutly petulant running back did for him on this Play of Plays. Downey gave him a simple numerical result of 18, usually good for an admirable chunk of yardage when referenced on the playing boards. But in his simple, uneducated peasant's heart, Ben knew a bad moon was rising.
"Inside the ten against a run defense, that's only a 4 yard gain!" Gordy cried, confirming it on the Inside Run chart. "No score! I win!"
"Ouch, so close!" Roy said, laughing and patting Gordy on the head.
"You sons of bitches, I'll kill you all!" Ben cried inappropriately, and flopped back onto Gordy's bed in coniptic pain. His knees rose up and slammed against the underside of the card table, causing the cards, the dice, and the football field to jump up in the air. The empty bottles rolled off the table and onto the carpet. Gordy cackled and clapped his hands.
"That was fun!" Gordy said. "You probably shouldn't have punted on that last possession. I should probably go to bed now."
"Yeah, we've really kept the kid up, Ben," Roy said, standing up, stretching, yawning, and collecting his feeble attempt at an outline. He had not taken a single note since the third quarter of the first game played tonight, when Ben had performed a most curious victory dance upon seeing his team block a field goal, a dance which Roy didn't think he'd ever be able to describe in mere words.
Ben remained motionless on the bed, staring at the ceiling like Martin Sheen contemplating the mysteries of Saigon in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. "It's wasn't me," he muttered to no one in particular. "Pat Premo is the worst quarterback in the history of the world. It wasn't me."
"You're the one who started him," Gordy noted, trying to push Ben off the bed but managing only to roll him onto his side. A bit of drool threatened to escape from the defeated coach's mouth but was unable.
"It's just a game, Ben," Roy said, grabbing one of Ben's wrists and hauling him up to his feet. Like a prize fighter at the end of his endurance, Ben wobbled a bit but managed to remain upright, if only for cosmetic reasons.
"A game....yes," Ben said, obviously meaning just the opposite. "We will go into the night now, and forget all about it." The soot-streaked coal-stokers who lived in his brain were doing their best to shovel in enough fuel to get it up and running again, but there seemed to be a severe unexplained jam in the works. Ben allowed Roy to guide him out of the room as if he'd just undergone an appendectomy and was wearing a blue gown and plastic slippers.
"See ya!" Gordy said to them both, and in the next moment he had turned his lights out and dashed under his covers once again to dream the easy sleep of the victorious. He replayed his players' finest highlights in his mind as he drifted off, augmenting them with the exclamations of booth announcers who cautiously guaranteed Gordy a spot in the Hall of Fame as soon as he left elementary school.
Roy didn't like the look of Ben's face as they walked down the stairs into the living room. The five hour session of APBA Football seemed to have possessed him unnaturally from the very first moments. There had been a wicked gleam in his eye as he sorted through the players' cards, taken the dice shaker in his hand, kept track of passing and rushing yardage on the scoresheet. Every simple coaching decision he had made had been prefaced by intense silences and bouts of pointless pacing. Ben's irritation with having to play the game had quickly given way to utter immersion, as if he had forgotten how to differentiate between an actual sport and the miniature one that had only been created to pleasantly expend some spare time. Ben had given Roy the details of his most recent financial setback during halftime of game two when Ben had finally allowed the boy to briefly break the action in order to go to the bathroom. Perhaps that final humiliation had done something to him somehow, made him unable to accept any more defeat of any kind. More bothersome still to Roy was the feeling that he himself had been overcome with as the games went on into the night...he had found himself gazing at the proceedings with rapt attention...and he'd been touched with a tingling feeling of competitive drive that he had not experienced since that dark night in May of 2001, of which he would tell no one, no one ever...
"Try not to wake up Mr. Pillick," Roy forced himself to whisper to Ben before his mind could touch upon a most unpleasant memory. In the living room, Harold was sitting slumped over in his easy chair in front of the TV set, which had been showing The Goonies when he fell asleep, but with the late hour had segued delightfully into soft core pornography. Ben caught sight of a bikini-clad woman making eyes at a brawny man in dirty mechanic's overalls as the two of them stood in the Sistine Chapel before he and Roy suddenly found themselves outdoors on the front step. For a moment Ben was genuinely confused as to how it had gotten dark. It seemed to him they had pulled up to the house just an hour or so before.
"I wonder," he mused as Roy put his sport jacket back on, one which was almost two sizes too big for him, "I wonder if that company makes a baseball game too, by any chance."
"I don't know," Roy said, yawning. "But, um, Ben, do you by any chance have a gambling addiction or anything like that? Not for the book. I'm just wondering."
"Don't be silly," Ben said. "I just like to take my board games seriously, that's all. Ask the fallen who have dared take me on in Parcheesi. I do regret telling the kid after that blocked field goal that I was going to eat his brain stem with crackers and grape jelly, but hey, I used to be an athlete. We get carried away."
"Yeah, I guess," Roy said. "I'll call you tomorrow afternoon, okay, and maybe we can meet up and I can ask you some more questions and we won't get so sidetracked."
"A baseball game...yes," Ben said to the night air, totally ignoring Roy and remaining on the front step as his biographer drove off through the neighborhood that NBC's Dateline would soon call "a brimming cauldron of hot tasty death" upon the Pool Skimmer Strangler's shocking capture. "What a thing that would be," he added for good measure. Eventually he crossed the lawn in his reverie and began the long walk back to town, which he completed almost halfway before he realized he had actually driven to Harold's that night and had left his car in his driveway. He was forced to blow five dollars on a cab ride back. Deenie P. Pillick happened to see him return for his car through a bathroom window. She called him a doofus and an 'ankle-mouth' under her breath and went back into the bedroom, where her increasingly doughy husband, an ex-ballplayer who at least knew how to comport himself somewhat, slept on, unaware that his best friend's life had just changed irrevocably and in somewhat silly fashion.
5. See, If Only You Could Plug it In Somehow and Make It Light Up, Then You'd Really Have Something
APBA International did in fact produce a tabletop baseball simulation for sale on the American consumer market, and had for the past fifty-five years or so. While this was a statement that should not have too dramatically affected the existence of an adult male of average intelligence and abilities, in Ben's case it was very soon to become a fact of Big Bang-level significance.
He found out about the baseball game through his explorations in Foolish Human, Your Doom Is Assured, a local board game shop located above a volunteer fire department on Chestnut Street. He had been in there once before, to buy some replacement Boggle score pads as a Christmas gift for an uncle he truly despised on every conceivable level, but now he had a far loftier sense of mission as he entered the musty, dimly lit single room that comprised the store and was greeted by Bill Butters, the shop's proprietor. As always, the weighty, fifty year old Butters was seated at a rickety gaming table in the middle of the room across from a man familiar to habitual patrons as Six-Sided Sid, a very tall, nervous fellow who always had a cigar in his mouth and who had last eaten a meal shortly before the inauguration of Gerald Ford. The men had taken a break from engaging in a complex simulation of an incredibly obscure military campaign that took place during three hours of the Boer War to wax poetic on the vicissitudes of the Australian army circa 1899 as they drank warm Sprite and generally lived life at one eightieth of the speed of regular humans. Ben waved off Butters's offer to help and just said he was looking around, not wanting to witness the sight of the man trying to hoist himself out of his folding chair.
Ben nosed through the shelves filled with war games, games involving the building of interstellar colonies and declaring war with them, games in which one did battle with everything from zombies to mutant bananas, and games in which no one fought at all; these last usually had a thick layer of dust on them. Ben spotted APBA Baseball sitting beside a display case offering dice you could see through. This, it seemed, was the Master Edition, an apparent upgrade from the one the casual public bought, offering more managerial challenges. To his surprise, the box revealed that the company was based out of Lancaster, just a mouthful of miles away. He grabbed the game and noted that the box contained player cards from the most recent pro season. He took it over to the cash register, which looked as though Bill Butters had scavenged it from Boer War surplus.
"I don't suppose that you have any older card sets for this game," Ben said to Butters.
The shop owner tilted his head back at a dramatic angle and appeared to scan the ceiling tiles for the answer to the question. "Let me think now," he mused. "Seems to me that a young fella came in here a few weeks ago wanting to trade an older card set for the new edition of Alien Salt Mine. That's the one where you supervise the construction of an alien salt mine on Neptune."
"No, no, no, you supervise the construction of an alien salt mine in Salt Mines of Lankhmar," Six-Sided Sid scolded him severely. "Alien Salt Mine just lets you plan the mine."
"I think I know the difference between Salt Mines of Lankhmar and Alien Salt Mine, you wheezing freeloader," Butters countered. This wasn't true; when it came to the alien salt mine construction genre of board games, no one could hold a candle to Sid's acumen.
"So he had an older card set he wanted to trade, eh?" Ben interjected impatiently.
"Yeah," Bill Butters said. "In fact, I don't think I got around to pricing it yet. Let's see..." He peered below the counter and laboriously knelt down to fish around below it. In seconds he had come out with a long thin cardboard box. He opened the top to show the 600-odd cards therein, all in excellent condition. He picked one out at random. "Dean Patino," he read off the card. "Says he hit .336...that could only have been—"
"2002," Ben said right away. He had struck paydirt. "How much for the set?"
"You got any games to trade?" Bill Butters asked him. "I'd take ten dollars off if you had a copy of Sherlock Holmes: Railroad Tycoon. Can't seem to get it from any of my distributors."
"No, just cash," Ben said, unable to drag his eyes away from the box of cards. In that moment he would have given this big tub of goo his shoes, his windbreaker, his mother, and his coupon for a free medium soda at Arby's with the purchase of any regular roast beef sandwich, a coupon that was good not just locally but nationwide.
"Name your price, local merchant," he declared, unafraid of the consequences. "I have a long day ahead of me."
After driving home as fast as he could, Ben made himself wait to pore through the player cards until he had examined the contents of APBA Baseball itself. He dumped everything on his kitchen table at about noon, poured himself some stale lemonade, and got to work. As with the game Harold's son had obviously cheated at somehow the night before, this one was colorful and simple to learn while offering him a multitude of managerial options. He could call for stolen base attempts, sacrifice bunts, intentional walks, play his infield in, pinch hit, change pitchers with abandon, try for a hit and run, et cetera, et cetera. In other words, all the strategies that he had suggested on occasion to Greeny St. Clair only to get a bitter frown in return. The man had not been the most adventurous of managers. It was said that Greeny hadn't looked at a baseball rulebook in decades, and that if no one had remembered to tell him that it wasn't legal anymore for batters to request certain kinds of pitches from the mound, he would still be yelling out for slow underhand changeups right down the middle.
Beginning today, all that was in the past.
Ben read over the rules of the game and then turned to the box of player cards. He thumbed through the 2002 teams, seeing the names of so many of the players he had known and competed against. Here was Dave "Three Bean" Barton, a Pittsburgh Pilots shortstop who in 1999 had hit three consecutive batters in the head during a spring training game. The nickname, printed right on the card, had stuck to him even after he had literally changed his last name to Frankenstein in an effort to distract people from his old stigma. Here amongst the roster of the perennially bottom-dwelling Milwaukee Suds was the card of Lee Wykes, a free-swinging catcher whom Ben had roomed with during his two years in the minors. For years it had been incredibly obvious to anyone with even a single functioning eye that Wykes could be struck out on any pitch in at the knees, yet pitchers kept trying to get him out high. The day they realized their folly, Wykes knew, was the day he would have to go to work in his father's cement trussing and fabrication business. That day came in 2002. The card representing the efforts of Boston Harbors journeyman starter Bryce Eldynk showed his birth date as being 1965, which Ben knew Bryce had lied about. In 2002 he had actually been a whopping 46 years old. He couldn't believe he had been getting away with it. What the card did reflect quite accurately, Ben would later discover as he played the game, was that Bryce had the strike zone accuracy that season of a blind man pushed out the top window of a ten story building and forced to drink a fifth of whiskey on the way down. And of course, here was Spike Vail's card, revealing that he could play almost any position and play it with a very high numerical rating. Ben growled, actually growled as he put the card back in the stacks. He didn't like the looks of all those 1s on it. If they meant something good for the player, as they did in APBA Football, then Spike Vail was regarded by the hard-working folks at the game company as quite the legend indeed. His nickname, "Lord God and Creator," stood out officiously in bold type.
He paused for a moment when he came to the twenty-odd player cards representing the Kentucky Cannons team that had pushed the New York Guardians to game seven of the championship series before....well, before things didn't pan out quite as people in the south wanted them to. He closed his eyes and wondered at this incredible feeling he had. It was as if the years since his retirement from baseball had all been leading up to this moment. The only time he could remember feeling this sort of elation before was when he was sixteen years old and his father had foolishly given him the keys to a company car so that Ben could run out and "just grab Native Son from the library." The total cost of chain-hoisting that car's twisted hulk out of Black Stump Swamp a mere fifteen minutes later had cost the Glinton family no less than two vacations to Knott's Berry Farm.
Ben went through the roster card by card. The names of his teammates, reduced conveniently to inert and silent data, were more familiar than the condition of his own toenails. Joey Williamson. John Kuchar. Clyde "The Dingo" Ringo. Even Harold was there. Harold "Wannabe" Pillick, shortstop and second baseman. Ben took a moment to make a mental note of the physical appearance of Harold's card so that he could quickly recognize by sight what symbols and numbers comprised a truly terrible player.
He finally came to his own card. He lifted it up before his eyes as if it were the beautiful shiny diamond that Harrison Ford had swiped in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was listed as an outfielder rated a 1. Checking back over the rules, he realized that this was not such a flattering description of his fielding skills. That was okay; he had never claimed to be a marksman with the ball. He was delighted to see that his twelve stolen bases kept him from being rated a slow runner. His statistics from 2002 were even shown. He could have cried out to the world that he had really batted .274 that year and not .272, and had been denied those two precious points by an official scorer who'd had it in for him ever since he'd referred to the man in an interview as "dumber than a box of snot." Ben took a quick look around the kitchen to make sure no one was watching him, and then ran a finger over the numbers on his card, touching them lovingly. It was him! It was Ben Glinton!
Then his eyes fell on the nickname assigned to him by the card makers and his face went beet red. Benjamin "The Blemish" Glinton read the words below the date and town of his birth.
"Oh, that's real nice, you ankle-mouths!" Ben shouted in the unsanitary stillness of his kitchen. Just for that, he had no intention of ever, ever buying an APBA T-shirt off the company's web site.
The orange phone hanging from a nail beside the refrigerator rang at that moment, and Ben rose to answer it still holding his card. "Hello?" he said.
"Hi Ben, it's Roy Skinla," said a voice over a scratchy cell phone connection. "Sorry if you can't hear me so well, I'm at some place called Meat Colony 604 grabbing some lunch before I have to go cover a soccer game somewhere. It's a church league, but it's actually pretty cool."
"Yeah, what's up?" Ben asked him, noting that the pristine condition of his card suggested that the kid who had owned the set before him probably never used Ben once. He hoped the little pants-wearer had problems in life.
"I was just starting to collect some basic background info on you for the book, and I wanted to get some quotes from some of the guys you used to play with. Are you still in touch with any of them?"
Ben was about to automatically speak Harold's name but then caught himself. A whole night of deception almost went right out the window. "Actually, not really," he told Roy. "Most of those guys kind of turned on me after that night in Lexington, you know. Good riddance, too."
There was a sudden burst of static on the other end of the line and when Roy came back on he apologized. "There's this big ugly guy in line who just cut in front of me," Roy said softly. "Why do people have to be such jerks?"
"Couldn't tell ya," Ben said, reading over the playing charts that came with the game, one for each men-on-base situation, and casting an eye on the sheet of Master Symbols, which further honed each player's skill ratings. "Anyway, I think you'll probably have to call those guys direct if you want stories from them."
"Yeah, okay," said Roy. He paused briefly to place an order for a burger and fries at the counter. Ben heard enough keywords to figure out that Roy was trying in vain to get the employees of the joint to prepare his meal in some kind of imitation of healthy eating. At Meat Colony 604, this was a practical impossibility. Many had died. "So," Roy continued, "do you suppose to find some of those guys I could call the Cannons office and maybe talk to a guy in....would it be called Personnel? Or Media Relations? Or no, wait, would they maybe, um, get mad if I called? Maybe I should just write."
"Not on such intimate terms with the big leagues, are you, Roy," Ben said, quite amused.
"Well, you know, I hope this book will be my entry into that world, I guess," Roy said. "The guy who covers the Wilkes-Barre Sky Turks for the paper gets free passes to the games sometimes. Man, that would be aces. Anyway, while I have you on the line...your old high school told me that it wasn't you who played the Mandy Patinkin part in the Drama Club production of Yentl. It was some kid named Phil Riviere. He was in the Wisconsin phone book so I called him and he claimed he took over the part after Barbra Streisand herself called the school and asked that you be replaced. Do you want to set the record straight on that?"
"Could we do this later, Roy?" Ben asked. "I'm on the verge of something over here. Might be important material for the book, actually. Big doings in the works."
"Oh, great!" Roy said so loudly that it created a burst of static on the other end.
"Yeah. Why don't we get together at the Meat Colony for dinner after your little soccer show and I can tell you what's going on."
Ben could detect a definite note of anguish in Roy's voice. "Okay, I guess I can eat a salad then, that'll balance out this hamburger."
"No salads at the Colony," Ben noted. "Well, not according to the traditional definition. Meet me there at eight."
"Sure," Roy said, and beeped out.
Ben set the phone ringer on Mute and sat down again. He spent another ten minutes or so reading the various board results and just rolling the dice again and again, seeing what sorts of feats his card was capable of producing. He had never had so much fun with batting practice. He hit grounders, fly outs, singles, the occasional double. True to real life, homeruns eluded him. After a while he got up to use the phone once again. Though the game could be played solitaire, he desperately needed someone to square off against to begin Phase One of the Secret Project Only He Could Now Understand. An insatiable thirst for competition began to brew in his stomach like a hot fresh batch of Magic Thrill Beer. Needing a warm body to fill in as opposing manager, he commenced to do what he had done so often: relentlessly hassle Harold Pillick to take the afternoon off work, drive over to the apartment, and just do whatever Ben said without too much complaint. It was a scheme that still worked at a percentage far higher than Ben's record of getting on base safely in his six-year career with the Cannons.
6. Why Ben Was Never Asked to Teach at Stanford
"Oh, you little kidney-necked floor-sucking finger-foot!"
Ben's face turned a high-gloss red for the eleventh time in as many minutes as his dice, bounding recklessly from the little yellow cup squished in his left hand, promptly came to rest on his kitchen table and offered only certain death. He cast a baleful eye at the card of one Dan Patterson, the 2002 Cannons' erstwhile second baseman, and knew immediately that the self-satisfied punk who used to refer to himself as "the ultimate ladies man" had just popped out weakly to third, ending the game. Harold clapped his hands and emitted a childlike yelp as his Las Vegas Jacks closed out the series 4 to 1. He swept his roster off the table as he heartlessly nudged Ben's base runners, represented by tiny red discs, off the playing diamond set between them.
"I'm giving the series MVP award to myself," Harold said happily, checking over the five heavily notated scoresheets he and Ben had plowed through over the course of the past three and a half hours as the afternoon light dissolved into dusk outside the grimy kitchen window.
"What?" Ben asked, mouth agape. "Okay, first of all, I was managing the Cannons, not you, Opey. Secondly, you may have noticed that I put you into the lineup for exactly one inning in game three, and only because Clyde Ringo got hurt turning that double play, and I pinch hit for you! With Bud Pibble. A pitcher, if you'll recall. A devout Christian pitcher."
"Doesn't matter," said Harold. "I won the series, so I get to pick the MVP. And it's me. Harold Pillick."
"Thank you for identifying yourself," Ben said dourly. "What a wipeout of a series. What ridiculous luck you had." He gazed at the boards bound inside the playing booklet as if he were gazing upon a faraway Tahitian sunset from the port of Detroit, dreaming of an island that might have been.
"I wonder what the real turning point was," Harold mused, sifting through the scoresheets. "Of course, there wasn't a real turning point, since I guess you were kind of never really in it, but I think it was that homerun Jose Herequiquez hit with one man on to seal Game Four. You probably should have intentionally walked him, especially in TriBiOmniCom Park."
"I'll intentionally give a free pass to a hitter when starfish play dominoes," Ben said. "As for the reasons for your alleged victory, I think it has more to do with the humidity in here warping my dice. Did you notice I rolled a lot more fours with the red one than seems normal? Watch. Watch." He shook his dice out across the emptied playing field but the result did not exactly confirm his theory. "Damn you!" he cried out at this betrayal. On the cardboard field, an imaginary grounds crew took a pause from sweeping the dirt between second and third to shake their heads sadly.
"I don't think the dice are a problem," Harold sighed.
"No, I'll bet you, because my hands were sweaty from making cookies and I kept, like, holding the dice in them while I was waiting for you to make your interminable pitching changes and completely pointless double switches."
"I may have gotten a little lucky sometimes," Harold admitted, "but you keep making some strange decisions. You keep trying to steal bases at the wrong times, you stick with your starters too long, and you never bunt."
"Bunting is for the frightened and the lost!" Ben countered. "Every time Greeny used to make me do it, I died a little inside. I mean, are we men or women?"
"You keep forgetting to factor in the fielding ratings too," Harold added, trying to sound as diplomatic as possible. "Your runners keep getting thrown out at the plate because of it. And what about the lefty-righty percentages, which you—"
"Enough, houseguest," Ben cut in. "Your victory was fluky and will be forgotten by everyone who was here to witness it." He began to examine the Bases Empty chart for typographical errors which might overturn the results of the series. Damn the APBA people for their proofreading excellence!
"Your biggest mistake was not putting your own card into the lineup," Harold said. "I just don't understand it."
"I told you, I don't want to jinx myself," Ben said with the utmost seriousness, picking up his card from the spot beside his left elbow which represented the Cannons bench, where Lee Harris and J.J. Portsmongerfield also lingered, unused and forgotten despite their admirable foot speed, which might have been able to nudge in a run during the Cannons' disastrous eighth inning meltdown in Game One. In that frame, Ben had somehow started with the bases loaded and nobody out only to push no one across the plate. The numbers on his own crisp white card shone out pristinely in red and black, virginal and plenty ready for the Show.
"Jinx yourself?" Harold said, getting up to grab another one of Ben's famous oatmeal raisin cookies from the plate on the counter. "What does that mean?" He broke his cookie in half. Deenie would kill him if he had no appetite for tonight's dinner, which would be something called brown noodles with wheat fingers.
"Oh Harold, childlike, innocent Harold," Ben said, "don't you understand what we've walked into here? This is baseball, man. Baseball reduced to miniature, but baseball all the same, and these cards, even your pathetically ineffective one, are us."
"Well, they're the baseball us," Harold said, sitting again and putting his full roster of players back into their petite envelope. "The real world us has it a little bit harder."
"Exactly my point," Ben said. He took the APBA box into his hands and admired the artwork thereon. "These us-es are immune to history, and to the vermin scum who keep criticizing we who gave our lives to the sport."
"I gave three years," Harold said. "They paid us pretty well, didn't they? And there was always food around. So many snacks!"
"Not the point. I've got a plan, Harold. A plan for this game, and for us." His eyes gleamed like the ragtag collection of quarters that made up his laundry fund.
Harold put his sneakers on, ready to leave. "Does this plan involve you throwing away the last of your money?"
"Probably," came the reply as Ben stared into space, the gears of his mind clanking and clanging. "All the pieces aren't quite clear yet. Come on, let's play a quick best-of-five. The Channel 8 Seinfeld block doesn't start for another couple of hours. You be New York, I'll be Portland."
"Deenie isn't going to like that," Harold said. "As it is, I have to go into work on Saturday now to make up for this half day. Do you maybe want to come with me, you could talk to my boss about applying for that copying department job."
"Saturday I'll be deep in study," Ben said. "I have much to learn before I dominate this game like I dominated everything Pop-O-Matic in elementary school."
"I don't think just reading the rules over and over is going to make you that good," Harold observed. "I'll keep playing you, but maybe you should line up some other opponents."
"Other opponents, yes, that's not as patently stupid as it first sounds," Ben said, ushering Harold to the door. "There must be someone out there who can show me why the dice aren't rolling right. We probably should have rolled them into the box instead of on the table."
"Or you could stop calling for a hit and run when you don't really need to," Harold offered, zipping up his windbreaker. "There's this book called Baseball for Your Brain that's good if you want to figure out all that stuff. I read it when I was in Double-A."
"Hello, Harold, I've been playing baseball since I was in seventh grade, I think I know when to put on a hit and run. I can't be blamed if Dennis Rendall couldn't hit worth a lick."
"Whatever you say," Harold said. "See you later."
When he was gone, Ben retreated into the stillness of the kitchen. He dashed off his July rent check, post-dated to the following weekend so as not to destroy his savings, and then, while cooking up some spaghetti, spattering the walls behind the stove with great dollops of marinara sauce, he immersed himself in APBA Baseball again. It was going to be a long night.
It didn't end till 3:43 the next morning, as a matter of fact. In that time, many an anguished screech was heard in the apartment as Ben lost again and again playing the solitaire version of the game. He lost with six different teams, by blowout, nail-biter, extra inning marathon, and a couple of head-hanging 6-2 affairs he probably could have made closer if he had only stopped calling for his base runners to steal on Fritz LeMetzelaars, an otherwise forgettable starter for the Jersey Tollmen whose move to first was deadlier than the bite of the fiercest flightless moa in all of New Zealand. But Ben learned much in the wee hours of the night of July 10. And at no point did he look again at his own card, which remained snugly nestled in the Kentucky Cannons team envelope. The jinx, he kept reminding himself, the jinx. He would smack himself silly if he ruined his destiny before the time was just right to do so.
7. Their Eyes Were Watching Tron
On page 1217 of Dr. Daniel Snydersugar's best-selling 2004 self-help book, Unscrewing Yourself Up, he describes what he refers to as the Ten Percentile Theory of behavior modification. It states that human beings as a whole tend to conform to a certain range of habits and behaviors, and what we define as "normal" is that spectrum of common actions which most people rather wisely adhere to. Snydersugar advises his readers to make a list of any habits and behaviors which it is safe to assume that less than ten percent of all people engage in regularly. This could be everything from owning a tarantula farm to being addicted to milkshakes to eating tree bark to painting one's face on a regular basis. Anything one does routinely that falls into that ten percentile "abnormal" range, the respected doctor claims, should be examined carefully, because these are the things that may well be responsible for stunting our emotional and intellectual growth.
Ben had never read that book or heard about that theory, and thus felt free to post the following advertisement on the internet upon waking up from his long night of tabletop gaming:
SERIOUS APBA BASEBALL ENTHUSIASTS WANTED to come over to my place in Harrisburg and play competitively. No Spike Vail cards, please. My famous oatmeal raisin cookies will be served. Limit 2 per person.
The replies he got back were encouraging, after he spent some time filtering out the people who wanted to sell him condos, pre-marital relations with THE HOTTEST NOTARIES EVER!!!!! and a disturbing number of people who offered to play the game with him only if he in return would, at some point in the future, sit with them up to their waists in gelatin. After only a day or so of planning the first meeting of the club Ben had in mind, he was ready to host a gathering of strangers in his home for the first time since he was twelve. This time, though, the absence of chicken pox-riddled pre-teen brown-noser Richie McLiggo would all but guarantee success.
"Welcome, APBA managers," Ben greeted his new friends when all were congregated in his cramped living room on Wednesday night, "to a refuge where we can all enjoy this fine pursuit I myself just discovered. I hope we can make this a regular get-together, especially if I can get a bigger apartment without those big freaky sinkholes in the parking lot. Sorry, I really should have warned you about those before you took that last right onto Knibler Court."
The eight or nine faces in the room applauded Ben briefly as he stood before them. Roy was there too, having been lured to the event by Ben's promise that it would all be essential material for the book. The gathering was spread out among four mismatched card tables he had snagged from Goodwill. Most of them had brought their own game sets and they all seemed anxious to begin. Cans of discount soda were everywhere. The company that made it, American Thirster, had actually shut down years earlier and Ben had been lucky to find two cases of the stuff sitting abandoned beside a pet shop dumpster just hours before.
"Now I must tell you," Ben announced proudly, "that you've all been a little bit deceived. I am not a complete baseball amateur, having played in the big leagues myself for several years for the Kentucky Cannons. You might have heard of me. My name is Ben Glinton."
Blank stares and polite smiles came Ben's way. Someone near the back of the room coughed. A hand was raised to Ben's right and he nodded in that direction.
"Um, are you the Ben Glinton who played in the 2002 series against New York?" asked a portly man of about fifty.
"Ah, yes, yes I am," Ben said hesitantly.
"Okay, just checking," the man said, and with that, he got up with no further comment, scooped his game under his arm, and walked toward the front door. In a moment he was gone.
Ben swallowed hard, trying not to look too mortally embarrassed. "Yes yes, that was all such a long time ago. A different era entirely, really. Ah...yes, sir, do you have a question?"
Someone else had raised their hand, and now this man stood up as well. "Are you the Ben Glinton who rented out a room on Woodland Avenue in Lexington a few years ago and had a dog named Crinkles who had horrible barking and urinary problems?"
Ben swallowed again. "Yes. That's me."
The man got up with no further comment, scooped his game under his arm, and walked toward the front door. In a moment he was gone.
"Okay," Ben said determinedly, "now that the naysayers are gone, we can all have some fun. But first, why don't we go around the room and introduce ourselves, starting to my left." Ben sat down.
A bald man with glasses and a bit of a belly stood up with a young boy of about twelve. "Hello," the bald man greeted everyone. "My name is Earl Peavey. I've been playing APBA since 1969, and recently I got my son here into the game. His name is Jake. He's actually going to graduate high school this year, several years ahead of schedule. He's already been accepted to Hofstra. I used APBA to teach him about statistics and probability, and, well, he took the ball and ran with it, so to speak, ha ha ha ha, heh, ha, yeah." He laid a fond hand on his son's shoulder.
The boy spoke in a tremulous voice that still seemed to be a decade or so away from puberty. "Sometimes I use baseball players from this game as characters in my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns," he said. "And I found a way to use APBA results to predict trends in arctic weather patterns."
His father laughed nervously. "He really likes baseball a lot," he said somewhat apologetically, and they both sat down.
The next person to stand up was a good bit younger than Earl Peavey and a fair bit older than Jake. He wore a stained, tie-dyed T-shirt bearing the face of Jerry Garcia, and catastrophically ripped jeans. His messy Jesus hair cascaded beside his sunburned face. "Hi, my name is Rick. I play APBA instead of computer games out of respect for the modern Luddite movement."
"What are Luddites again?" Ben asked.
"Luddites," Earl's nerdy son piped in, "are people who don't like technology."
"He speaks the truth, man," said Rick. "Computer games retard the brain. Also, APBA is constructed from wholesome materials like paper and dice. Plus I love baseball. It's really slow and boring, like the movement of the earth, which we should all respect. I also will only listen to games on the radio. Seeing the actual players stifles the imagination. The absence of imagination is what led this country down the path of war and away from nature's prophecy."
"We appreciate the sentiment," Ben said. "Um, next?"
Roy looked around him, embarrassed that everyone was now staring at him. He stood up quickly. "Oh, hi, I'm not really an APBA player per se, I write for the Harrisburg Daily Fact Holder. I'm working on a biography of Ben here, but I'll be glad to join in if anyone's short an opponent, it looks like fun. Um, real quick, does anybody else's soda taste a little funny, kind of like duck sauce maybe?"
There were general nods of agreement, but no solutions were offered.
"My name is Emmitt Templeton," said the next player to stand, a stocky, professorial-looking chap with a head of wavy gray hair. "I've been playing the game since I served in Vietnam."
"Emmitt Templeton the three-time Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist?!" little Jake Peavey asked excitedly, pushing his glasses higher up his nose.
"Yes, that's right," Templeton replied.
"I've read the entire Ottoman trilogy!" Jake exclaimed. "I asked my teacher if I could do my book report on volume two instead of My Side of the Mountain."
"Well, it's not my best work," Templeton said coolly. "It's a wonder it was ever accepted for publication. A trifle, really."
"Wow, how do you find the time to play APBA when you write all those novels and win all those awards?" Earl Peavey asked.
"I use the game as a stress-reliever," Templeton said. "The sound of the dice shaking clears my mind. I finished my cycle of novels about the Civil War draft riots in between a project to simulate the 1997 playoffs. The results were most gratifying. Most gratifying."
The last person left in the room didn't seem to want to stand. He sat low in his chair and nervously fingered the box in front of him. "My name's, um, Walter," he said from underneath the bill of a St. Louis Steamers baseball cap. "I figured I should get a hobby at some point, and this one seemed pretty cheap. So, yeah, that's pretty much the whole story."
Ben thought for a moment, peering at the guest. "Do you have a last name?" he asked.
Walter looked around nervously. "Last name? No. Why would I have one of those?"
Ben stood to get a better look at the mystery man. "Wait, I know that voice. Where do I know you from?"
"We went to the same high school, I think," Walter said, his eyes still invisible under his cap. "I sat behind you in Band. Go Panthers."
"Walter Williger!" Ben said, snapping his fingers. "Curse, is that you?"
The man tore off his cap and dropped it on the table in front of him.
"Yeah, okay, it's me."
"Curse Williger of the Cannons!" Earl Peavey said, impressed. "I know why Ben Glinton dropped out of baseball and out of society, but how come you did? You were terrific!"
"Yeah, dude, what was up with that?" Rick asked. "My father used to call me a loser and tell me I quit everything like Curse Williger. No offense."
Curse, only thirty years old, still handsome as the day was long and fit as Ben was getting flabby, spoke reluctantly. "It was the damn umpires," he told the group. "And those calls in the series in 2002. After I complained about those in the media, I could never get another break from the umps. I had to become a total power pitcher just so those goons couldn't cheat me out of the corners of the plate. I just got sick of it after a while. End of story."
"Wow," Jake said, wide-eyed. "For 2002, you're rated an A (Y)(ZZ) with a 2 fielding rating and even an instant homerun on a roll of 66," he said. "That's the last really good card you ever had from APBA."
"I know," Curse said. "This game is the only baseball I feel like playing now. There are no bad calls in it. Everything's totally honest. If I pitch and lose, it's because I sucked, not because those scheming umpires took it from me. I just like doing this more than the real thing."
"Quite a poignant tale," Templeton observed. "I would consider it an honor to play against you, with yourself as the starting pitcher."
"All right," Curse said, his mood lightening. "Right now I only have the year 2003 card set, when I was mostly in the bullpen because I was working on my new mechanics, but I have a C rating as a starter. I'll give it a shot."
"I suggest we play freeform for a while, against whoever we feel like," Ben told the group, "and then a little later we can go playoff-style, one and done, until we crown a champion. I've come up with a prize for tonight's winner. Get ready, people: the man who captures the title walks out of here with a lightly used VHS copy of Tron."
A buzz of either excitement or total indifference went through the room, and the players began to arrange their contests. Cards were brought out, pencils were sharpened, and boards laid down. Soon the room was filled with the sound of rattling dice and CD recordings of radio broadcasts of historic ball games that Harold had lent Ben. Ben sat out this first round of casual games, content to walk from table to table to observe what was going on and to make barely appropriate comments on strategy and sudden turns of fortune. He was a little dismayed at everyone's facility with the rules and the way they made managerial decisions so casually and confidently. There was a disturbing lack of blowouts and gaffes.
At about eight-thirty, Ben made a list of playoff pairings. Roy sat out, wanting to work on his notes. As soon as teams of roughly equal abilities were decided on, the three pairs of competitors went to battle while Roy took Ben aside.
"I'm a little confused as to what this might have to do with the book," Roy said. "This is fun and all, but isn't it just a bunch of guys hanging out and playing a game?"
"Baby steps, Roy, baby steps," Ben told him. "You are witnessing the beginning of a process which will end with a terrific climax for the book."
"Okay, I trust you, I guess," Roy said, sipping his soda and trying not to grimace. "By the way, I called your mother for some background information about your childhood. I think it's probably only fair that we reveal somewhere near the beginning that your real name is Herschel Gury Locknagel."
"That's a long story," Ben said. "No one will be interested. I have some anecdotes about working at Dairy Queen when I was a teenager that'll completely blow people away."
"We haven't talked yet about how we're going to approach that night against the Guardians," Roy said delicately. "Any ideas?"
"Soon it'll be a moot point," Ben said. "Keep your eyes on the proceedings."
Ben sat down to take on Rick head-to-head and started off well, thanks to a couple of quick homeruns which even his managerial shakiness couldn't keep off the scoreboard. When Rick tied up their game by using the dreaded small-ball skills of the Minnesota Ice Eaters, Ben started to panic, and by the seventh inning, he was making strange roster moves and inserting pinch-hitters so fast he was in danger of completely exhausting his bench. Then a miracle happened: Rick took out his fatiguing starter and replaced him with the best middle reliever the Ice Eaters had, an illegal Estonian immigrant who wasn't very good at all, and back-to-back rolls of box cars produced four runs for Ben's Orlando Sun Snakes. Just like that, he had won the game. His head swelled to the size of California itself.
"Piece of cake," he muttered, and tilted back in his chair so far that he momentarily lost his balance and threatened to topple over backwards.
Nearby, Emmitt Templeton, a painfully slow player who tended to shake his dice in hypnotic rhythm before every single roll and contemplated every maneuver with the facial expression of Boris Spassky considering moving his decoy bishop to his queen's unguarded flank, edged out Curse Williger by a score of 2-1. Curse's APBA self pitched valiantly, but Templeton seemed to know exactly when to take chances, which put him in a position to score both his runs on sacrifice flies. The men shook hands cordially when their game was over. Ben then overheard Curse swearing an axe-based bloody vengeance on God himself. Across the room, young Jake Peavey beat his father 6-4, despite having a weaker team, on a freak error in the twelfth inning. His father emitted a very mild curse word and apologized profusely to the boy, wondering aloud if he should even be allowed to raise a son while possessed with such a rampant potty mouth. He excused himself to call his wife and beg her forgiveness, which, as usual, was not forthcoming.
Jake was given a bye in the semi-finals due to strength of schedule and the fact that he had to dash off a quick homework assignment before heading for the last round. Templeton and Ben squared off, and Ben drew a slightly better team. Templeton uttered a series of moody harrumphs as his hitters proved unable to make contact through five full innings, and Ben, delirious with the possibility of actually winning back-to-back games, got more and more animated as his Detroit Run Dogs hit bunches of singles to get two runs across. After a homerun, things got only worse for Templeton. Ben was ahead 3-2 in the ninth inning when he made the boneheaded mistake of not bringing in some defensive substitutions to back up ace reliever Solomon Sodd. An error put a man on first base, Templeton flashed the hit and run, and suddenly there were runners on first and third. But without any help from Ben, Sodd struck out three batters in a row to send Ben to the finals, one game away from keeping his stained and smelly VHS tape.
That left Jake and Ben. The others gathered around. The hour grew late.
Jake beat Ben 12-1 in thirty-seven minutes.
It all happened so fast. Ben had no idea what really transpired. He made three bad moves in the second inning, once again refusing to walk anyone, then falling asleep to the possibility of the squeeze play, then playing the infield in rather than give up a single run, a mistake of pride that built a slippery slope toward a seven run explosion. Five runs followed in the third. Ben had put his faith in his players' overall batting averages over the fact that the opposing pitcher was dominant against lefties, and batter after batter tanked. When his final batter lined out to short, Ben reached for the dice again, certain it couldn't possibly be over so fast. The eleven o'clock Friends block on Channel 13 hadn't even started yet.
"Okay," Ben said to Jake, trying to control his interior agony, "you can have Tron, but you'll have to buff the scratches out of it yourself. Why don't we go just one more time, and make it a little more interesting. I've got thirty bucks that says I take you out, little man."
A sudden hush fell over the room and Jake's dad dropped his blessedly empty soda can onto the carpet. Rick's mouth formed into a silent, horrified oval. Even the penetrating eyes of the normally unshakeable Emmitt Templeton went wide.
"What? What?" Ben asked. "Okay, it's a kid, if he doesn't have thirty bucks, I'll take a bicycle in fairly good condition."
"People don't really bet on APBA," Earl Peavey said. "It just....isn't done, really."
"It diminishes what we do, Ben," Templeton added. "We try to keep it pure. That's what separates APBA from the tawdriness of professional sports and the cutthroat myopia of fantasy leagues."
"Fantasy leagues, man," Rick said distastefully. "No accounting for defense, no sense of game strategy, no appreciation of role players, no dice shakers. Leave me out of it, dude."
"Well, how intense are we allowed to get?" Ben asked, stunned. "Is there no money to be made in this game?"
"Not really," said Earl.
"Come on," Ben said. "Surely somewhere in this great land of ours there are players who want to take it to the next level. If not for cash, then to at least lord their victories over the heads of the losers. If you can't lord, what's the point of any of it?"
"If it's a more hardcore strain of players you seek, I think I might have an idea where to begin looking for them," Templeton said. "They tend to not dwell on message boards. They're more serious than even that. When I was researching my four novels about the Negro leagues, I met a man who lives in Philadelphia...I don't even know how to really describe him..."
"Is he really serious about this game?" Ben asked, covertly pushing the scoresheet presenting the facts of his awful loss to Jake out of sight. "Because I need to find the absolute masters for a little competition I have in mind."
"Serious...oh yes, he's serious," Templeton said, narrowing his eyes in memory. "I could go through my notes from back then and possibly find an address..."
"Yes!" Ben said. "Now we're rolling."
"Tell us about this competition, man," Rick said. "Sounds like fun."
"I can't just now," Ben said. "You'll all be kept informed of the developments. Our next meeting will be on Friday night, and there may be chips. That's not confirmed yet. Actually, forget I said anything about chips. Just be here at seven."
8. Our Nation's Fabled Interstate Highway System Earns Its Keep
Only one more meeting of the Independent APBA Collective of Metro Harrisburg was held before Ben found himself in the passenger's seat of Harold's 1999 Toyota Camry on a shiny Saturday morning, headed east on 76 with Roy Skinla in the back seat. A bare week had passed since the first gathering which had tipped Ben off to the existence of some fabled Others who might aid and abet his education and passion for the board game he could barely afford. Since then he hadn't made any progress whatsoever excellence-wise, but in simulating a mini-season as manager of the Florida Winsmiths, he had at least gotten down the basics of keeping statistics on the scoresheet. His record in that mini-season: 7 wins, 21 losses. The Winsmiths' actual record that year was 103-59. The discrepancy would have been alarming enough to cause any serious APBA player to confiscate his set and donate it to a worthy charity.
"So, you learned the game from watching This Week in Baseball?" Roy was asking Ben from the back seat, trying to write down his answers to various biographical questions between the Camry's tremulous encounters with assorted potholes.
"Yeah," Ben replied. "I heard that theme they used to play over the end credits and I got chills. That was also my introduction to classical music. I started watching the show for the highlights but my mother thought I was just waiting for the theme to play again. So she signed me up for clarinet lessons and I never got to play baseball till I was fifteen."
"Wow, that's good stuff!" Roy said, scribbling furiously.
"Very soon it became totally obvious that no classical music was nearly as good as the end theme to This Week in Baseball, and I sold the clarinet on the sly. I told my mother I dropped it down a grating."
"And, um, what was the first team you ever played for?"
Ben thought for a moment. "That would have been the Sewickley Savings and Loan Banjo Boys. It was a four-team league. It just about disbanded because we got three straight days of rain and the field wouldn't dry out. Then our coach disappeared. All they found was the canoe he'd been fishing in on Lake Meade, completely covered in enriched flour. It was on Unsolved Mysteries a few years ago."
"It wasn't flour, it was baking soda," a voice said from the seat beside Roy. The voice belonged to young Jake Peavey, whose attention had been buried in a book of Richard Feynman's lectures. His appearance in the car was not so bizarre as to make the scene completely implausible. When Ben had told his father of this day trip to Philadelphia to meet with a supposed intellectual wizard of the APBA arts, Earl had asked if Ben could take Jake to the Mutter Museum of Medical Curiosities and maybe also the latest Rodin exhibition. Ben saw the opportunity to make twenty dollars and had seized upon it.
"Flour, baking soda, either way that guy wasn't going to be teaching any more kids to rub yogurt on their gloves to soften the webbing," Ben said. "He used to send the kids who were really bad into deep, deep left field and call the position 'zone sentry'."
"Aw, rats, my pencil broke," Roy said sadly. "Can we stop somewhere and get a new one? We were really on a roll there."
Ben, who had been making up about half of the facts he'd been offering, was only too glad for a brief respite to collect his thoughts and hone the lies he'd created to make his life sound somewhat interesting. It had already taken a half hour or so to explain why Harold, whom Ben supposedly did not know and whose son he had visited out of pure altruism the week before, was not only in the car with them but had revealed himself to be an ex-Cannons player. The tapestry of falsehoods they'd had to weave to alleviate Roy's suspicions of foul play had been worthy of preservation in some sort of Fabrication Hall of Fame. "Yeah," Ben said, "let's get you a pencil and grab some hamburgers or something too. Keep your eye out for a Checkers or something."
"I can't eat hamburgers," Jake said, closing his book and leaning forward so that his head floated between Ben and Harold. "My mom says the glurbinates will stunt my growth."
"There's a Fat Chicken Mountain up ahead," Harold said, turning on his blinker.
"Go through the drive-thru," Ben said, "we have to keep an eye on the time."
"Why are we going to Philadelphia anyway?" Jake asked. "My dad said it had something to do with APBA."
"You got that right," Ben said. "I've got a plan."
"But why couldn't we go in your car?"
"Because the state of Pennsylvania has something against my emissions pipe," Ben said bitterly. "Harold, do me a favor, spot me a few dollars so I can get a number 4 value meal. It's incredible, it's like the best thing anybody has ever eaten."
"I'll buy you two of them if you just tell us what this plan of yours is," Harold said, getting in line at the drive-thru. Jake expressed an interest in waffle fries and Roy, after checking out the menu and once again resigning himself to eating poorly, opted for the Heart Healthy grilled vegetable sandwich with no condiments, which, according to the dietary chart beside the order speaker, possessed four days' worth of saturated fat. The more time he spent in Ben's company, the more and more his life span dwindled.
"The plan," Ben said, looking toward the horizon like the captain of a voyage into unknown lands where the cities were rumored to be made of gold and mermaids swam about day and night, sleeping with anything that moved. "Okay, I'll tell you. Are you ready? Here it is. I propose, my friends, nothing less than—"
"Yes, ah, hello, how are you, can I get a number 4 value meal," Harold was forced to interrupt, leaning out the driver's side window, "a number 7 with no pickle, a number 6 with the pickle on top of the bun instead of inside it, a large waffle fries, four medium root beers, and a Silly Cone. Just the cone please, I don't want the ice cream in it."
"As I was saying about the plan," Ben said. "What I intend to do is, and I am absolutely serious about this, is—wait, didn't I tell you I wanted a moon pie? Did I not clearly say moon pie?"
"And a moon pie," Harold added. An electronic squawk asked him to drive around to the second window.
"Maybe we should wait till I get a pencil so I can write this down," Roy said.
"Why do you need to write it down?" Jake asked. "The guy inside the restaurant knows what the order is now."
"I mean the plan, not the order," Roy said.
"I think I might have a nub of a pencil in the glove compartment," Harold offered.
"How much of a nub?" Roy asked.
"My PLAN is two-pronged, for anyone who cares to listen," Ben said.
Harold opened the glove box as he stopped beside the delivery window. "You know, maybe I shouldn't even call it a nub. That's being generous."
"I'd like to eat a moon pie, but my Mom says they're full of all kinds of bad stuff, and she reads articles all the time," Jake said.
"It's important to learn to eat well as soon as you can, Jake," Roy said. "You wouldn't think it to look at me now, but I was fat as a kid, and it really made life tough in school."
"You were fat?" Jake asked, amazed. "Wow. How did you get so skinny and small? You're like a boy, or a really tough girl."
"I had a plan," Roy said. "Do you want to hear it?"
Ben closed his eyes and put a hand to his forehead. "Sally save my Skittles," he muttered under his breath.
"We could have gotten a number 5 for a dollar cheaper if we had all agreed to get cherry Cokes," Harold mused regretfully. "Oh man. Oh man. See, that's the kind of thing that if you keep an eye out for, the money really starts to add up."
In the Middle East, unrest continued.
"We're going to stage a tournament," Ben told them when the car was back on the highway, headed more or less where they were intending to go. Jake had fallen asleep immediately upon starting in on his lunch, doing nothing to dispel the rumor (proved in a court of law three years later) that Fat Chicken Mountain's waffle fries were absolutely drenched in Thorazine. "We're going to stage the biggest APBA tournament in history. It will be so big that it'll be covered by all the major sports networks. At this tournament, I will advance to the highest level of competition. I will manage the 2002 Kentucky Cannons. " He paused only to take a loud slurp from his warmish root beer, the straw nestled in the corner of his mouth. "My opponent, whoever it turns out to be, will manage the New York Guardians. And as God as my witness, in front of the crowd that turns out to watch, I will absolutely trounce that sucker, and you can bet your butt that my card will be in the lineup, batting cleanup. Any questions?"
There was a moment of silence inside the car. Harold appeared to silently replay Ben's words in his mind from beginning to end, trying to find just one or two rational concepts he could work with. Roy chewed on his pencil nub, started to say something, and then stopped. He looked merely confused.
"But Ben," Harold finally ventured as they passed road signs pointing the way to downtown Philadelphia, "what's the point?"
"The point is, I need to do this," Ben said. "I don't expect you to understand. You had your career. It started, it went on for a few years for no particular reason, and when it ended you shook hands with everybody and went home to your lawn and your wife's gory Tom Savini meals. I wasn't so lucky."
"You can't go back in time, Ben," Harold cautioned. "You should maybe just forget it all ever happened."
"Easy for you to say, Pillick. Guardians fans didn't pressure their city council to name a wetlands preserve after you for pretty much handing them the world championship. I have to live with that every day."
"This kind of sounds like a lot of work, Ben," Roy added, just trying to be helpful. "How do you know you'd even win? If you lost, wouldn't you feel even worse?"
"Failure is not an option," Ben said tersely, then rubbed his chin. "What movie is that from? Isn't there some movie where Ed Harris says that?"
"The Hours," Harold said.
"I will win because I'm going to spend the time between now and the tournament getting as good as anyone has ever been at this game," Ben said. "There's no reason excellence should be worth more on a real playing field than a cardboard one. A champion is a champion. If I work just as hard as mastering APBA baseball as I did at playing left field, the results I get are just as meaningful."
Roy did his best to write this down on his notepad, smooshing his pencil nub this way and that. What came out on the page looked like the writing of a mildly talented monkey. "Interesting, I can sort of see your point," he said.
"I'm not real sure I do," Harold said. "And how are you going to arrange a major tournament and get it covered by the sports channels? They don't have much interest in something like this."
"They will if I tell them that Ben Glinton intends at this tournament to reveal for the first time exactly why he destroyed game seven of the 2002 series," Ben said, and looked casually at his fingernails, waiting for their reaction.
"You mean you did it on purpose?" Roy asked, bending forward excitedly. "Is that what you're saying?"
"No, not on purpose, per se," Ben said. "But there's a very specific reason that things happened in that inning the way they did. I've kept it secret for four long years."
"It was drugs, right?" Roy guessed. "Drugs? What kind?"
"It wasn't drugs, and thanks for letting me know what you think of me, Roy," Ben said. "The only way the world will finally understand what went down is if the reporters are at the tournament when I explain it. The Nineteen Thousand, Four Hundred and Fifty Dollar Tournament of Valiants, I will call it, because fellas, that's exactly how much I'm going to walk away with when I make the Cannons trounce the Guardians. In other words, exactly one 2002 world championship series winner's share."
"Twenty thousand dollars for winning an APBA tournament?!" Harold said, almost lapsing into shock and getting into the wrong lane to turn onto Market Street. "Are you nuts, Ben? Where do you think you're going to get that money from?"
"That particular piece of the puzzle has yet to fall into perfect position," Ben admitted. "I think it'll involve another day trip, possibly on Monday. Who's in? Roy?"
Roy almost leapt off his seat in excitement. "Now I see what you meant by the great ending for the book!" he said. "It's got irony, drama, and weirdness. If you could really win with your own card in the lineup, beating the same team you gave the series to with your incredibly bizarre, incredibly awful, unbelievably stupid play—I mean, you know, no offense, Ben, but they'll be talking about it for hundreds of years after we all die—and on the very same day that you manage to win, you stand up and tell everyone what really happened that night...."
"You never told me anything about this before, that there was a reason for it," Harold said. "How come I'm just hearing about it now?"
"I don't tell you everything, Harold," Ben said. "Jeez. We're not Betty and Veronica."
"So where are we going on Monday?" Roy asked, almost as bouncy as Jake got sometimes when his parents took him on Saturdays to the Erie County Library of Botanical Abstracts.
"To the mean streets and mystical vistas of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," Ben told him. "But first things first. Harold, we should have turned left about three stoplights ago. And if Jake's not gonna wake up, there's no reason we should be letting his fries get cold."