"Boy, you sure did make some mistakes that night," the homeless gent noted.
"Yeah, I'm sure your record is spotless," Ben countered, and the guy walked off. The lottery ticket he bought with that three-quarters of a dollar fifteen minutes later wound up netting him $23, 411.
Ben climbed some chipped and mossy steps to the front door of the building before him, and, seeing that the gaping, jagged hole in it would make for an easier entrance than actually pulling the door open, stepped through and into a hallway decorated lovingly with graffiti of such spectacular profanity that Ben actually took a moment to memorize some new words. Then he went to the end of the hall, avoiding the bicycle and refrigerator parts strewn across the floor, and knocked on a blue door which had been highlighted in black marker with the number 104. The 4 was woefully off-center. And based on the numbers on the doors of the other apartments on the floor, it should have been 108 instead.
"Come in!" he heard a voice call out, and he opened the door and entered. The apartment inside was dark but not quite forbidding. It just looked like someone was more or less allergic to the concept of electric lamps. The place was cluttered, that was for sure. Books were piled everywhere. Ben saw a man standing in the middle of the living room with his back to him, carefully ironing a pair of pants. The man turned and smiled.
"Hello, Mr. Glinton," he said. "I'm happy to meet you." Fergus Hibbert came forward with a nervous smile. He was about forty, sickly pale, and wearing a T-shirt advertising a poorly received animated motion picture that no one had thought about much since the actor who had done the voice for the dancing hippopotamus mysteriously drowned in his soup in 1996.
"Hi," Ben said. "So, Emmitt Templeton tells me you're a serious APBA player." He leaned a casual hand on the edge of the ironing board and it came to rest in a moldy peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"Oops, sorry about that, not a lot of room in here," Fergus said. "Here, wipe your hand on these." He lifted the newly ironed pants and offered them.
"That's okay," Ben said.
Fergus frowned. "Yes, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to sully these, would it, since I just spent half the morning smoothing them. I have an interview for a research grant tomorrow, you see, and I have to look my best. That's why I'm sort of modeling this T-shirt today, to get a feel for it."
"Super," Ben said. "So you're a real scientist, then?"
"Since I was nine," Fergus said, unplugging his iron. "This grant will allow me to study non-quantal pathozones in differential calculative combines utterly independent of their associative rudimates."
"Terrific. Does that mean anything I would understand?"
"Oh yes!" Fergus said, beaming. "The end result will be the completion of a seven month project to make the APBA Baseball sacrifice bunt booklet eleven percent more accurate on fields with artificial turf!"
"Hmmmm," Ben said. "Seven months."
"Well, I would have liked to have spent ten, but you know, I've got to pay my bills," Fergus said, gesturing for Ben to follow him over to a large, poorly painted table on which Ben spied the first evidence of the scientist's pro-APBA leanings. An older version of the Master game was set up for solitaire play. Ben noted that the boards were yellowed and grimy, and had been handled so often that the edges were completely rounded. A white path had been worn away on the baseball diamond due to so many red plastic chips moving from home to first base and onward. Around the game were piled several spiral-bound volumes marked with handwritten titles like HIT AND RUN CHART 1992, VERSION 9 and BALLPARK EFFECTS ON FOUL BALLS TO THE FIRST BASE SIDE and PINCH HIT PROBABILITY, ALL PLAYOFF SERIES SINCE 1941. The volumes tended to be thicker than any book Ben had ever tried to read except, of course, for Harry Potter.
"Since my ideal avenue of research ended some years ago," Fergus told him, "I've focused my energies on APBA. So many possibilities for modifying the game to simulate as closely as possible the real thing! First I had to completely break down the mathematics of the Basic game to know exactly what I was dealing with. That took a mere year and a half, after which I was ready to really get into it. I began with the batting tables, of course, because I thought I detected a very slight advantage given to hitters who tended to strike the ball to the left side. Here, look at the first analysis I did." From one of the stacks of booklets he pulled out one with a cherry red cover. Ben noted with some amusement and some horror that Fergus had drawn a little picture of a baseball player beneath the words MID-RANGE BATTING RESULT DISCREPANCY ASSESSMENT, RUNNERS ON FIRST AND THIRD. Ben leafed through the dozens of pages of mathematical formulae, feeling a little dizzy.
"I played 1700 games to test that initial hypothesis," Fergus said. "Always the same two teams of course, to make the results more reliable."
"Of course," Ben said, smiling nervously and taking one very small step back away from Fergus. "Says on the last page here that your findings were incorrect and that you scrapped the idea."
"Yes, most disappointing," Fergus said. "That's when I turned to re-working the stolen base system. After 840 games, I really had something I could work with. My results brought the accuracy within .0139 percentage points of those from the actual 1994 season."
"I see," Ben said, putting the booklet down. "So, ah, you don't really play competitively, then. Or even, you know, for fun."
"Goodness no," Fergus said. "Oh, I did at first, of course, but then when I saw the possibilities to make the game mimic the real thing to the absolute letter, I couldn't simply ignore them. Everything must be taken into account, from wind patterns over certain parts of certain stadiums to the tendencies of some players to round first and third bases on greater arcs than others to the possibility—rare, I grant you—that a pitcher could stub his toe jogging in for relief and possibly reduce his Master grade level by a full point. Did Emmitt tell you of my magnum opus, the Unusual Play Omnibus? There are seven volumes thus far. They take into account and make it possible to reproduce every rare play that has occurred in the big leagues since 1904. I couldn't access the game data before that year, much to my chagrin."
"Oof, that really sucks grapes," Ben agreed. "So, ah, exactly how long does it take for you to play a single game using all your modifications?"
"Oh, not more than nine or ten hours," Fergus said mildly. "Sometimes if I'm in a hurry, I won't use the Player Mood formulas."
"Player Mood formulas?"
"Indeed. A player's private life can have as much effect on his performance as many other factors, a fact sadly not reflected on the standard APBA card. So I went back through the years and studied newspaper clippings of all the controversies to which I could assign a rudimentary mathematical card alteration, and then, when I could, I accessed public records of divorces and deaths of close relatives to further tweak a player's abilities in months that I believed his play was affected by these events. For instance, poor Stookie Sullbarb of the 1928 Richmond Rivermen....remember the public outrage against him when he was ticketed for loitering during the break between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs? If you play a game on any day within two weeks after that fateful September night, it causes one of the 8s on his card to be downgraded all the way to a 24...an instant ground out to short! Can you imagine?"
"Oh yeah, I can imagine," Ben said, all of a sudden silently regretting his long-ago decision not to carry a handgun with him at all times for protection. "So does this mean that you own pretty much every card set APBA ever produced?"
"But of course," Fergus said, nimbly darting between the clutter all around him towards a giant rack of bookshelves in the corner of the room. Ben hadn't noticed it because the light in the room didn't even come close to reaching that far back. Fergus turned on another lamp and there they were, going up to the ceiling, every card set there ever was, a veritable landslide of yellowish team roster envelopes, each year noted with a slip of paper taped to the shelf directly above it. "And do you know, Ben, I've found out something quite interesting about your 2002 card in particular."
"Oh yeah?" Ben said, staying where he was. The bookshelves looked kind of wobbly, more wobbly even than Fergus's brain.
"In certain on-base and out situations, your card from that year is deceptively effective," Fergus informed him. "In fact, given just the right circumstances, you hit almost twelve points higher than you did in real life. And then there's the printing error, which of course you already know about."
Fergus ran a finger along the shelf on which his cards from the most recent turn of the century were located. From beneath the roster envelopes he removed a folding accordion card on which the Master game player symbols were printed. Fergus walked over to Ben and pointed out his name in the Kentucky Cannons lineup.
"There it is," Fergus said breathlessly. "You are not listed as a pull hitter, but rather as a straight-away type. It very much improves your effectiveness against righties. A blatant and shocking typo produced not by the APBA company itself, oh no, but rather by a deranged man named Bentley Harkaby. In 2001 he invented a poorly received tabletop baseball simulation called Hey Batter Hey Batter Hey Batter Hey Batter Swing! The failure of it caused him to go quite insane, break into the APBA building in the middle of the night, and make an attempt to sabotage their card printing process. He failed miserably except for making you a straight-away hitter and causing the name of the Guardians' ace relief pitcher, Jeff Morone, to become rather comically misspelled."
"Most excellent," Ben whispered reflectively. Things just kept getting better and better for his plan, if you ignored the fact that it had taken him to a dangerous tenement in Philadelphia where he was now being offered a corn chip from a snack bag whose expiration date was June 1985. "No thanks," he said to Fergus. "So, this kind of thing is making you more happy than....what was your original 'ideal avenue of research' again?"
Fergus walked away from Ben, gazing up toward the ceiling in fond memory. "When I was a lad of thirty and on sabbatical from M.I.T., I was just months away from perfecting the ultimate machine. A contraption so valuable to the enrichment of humankind that it would have changed life as we know it forever. Yes, Ben Glinton... I speak of a time machine."
"No way," Ben said, taking a few corn chips from the snack bag after all. "Now that is cool."
"Cool as school," Fergus mused. "I was about to become the first man to literally travel through time. I expended more intellectual energy and super-sophisticated particle acceleration analysis on that pursuit than all the other scientists in the world put together. But in the end, I realized I had done some long division wrong and eighteen years of research went down the drain. I moped about for a time with species studies deep inside the Amazonian rain forest, taught a semester or two in advanced hypothetical geometry at Princeton, you know, totally wasting my life, and then one day at my mother's house I was poring over some of my old childhood toys and I came across APBA Baseball again. I was never going to be able to build my time machine, but here was one right in the palm of my hands. With it, I've been able to journey throughout the twentieth century re-creating some of history's greatest sporting contests."
"You know, if you want to re-create events from the past," Ben told Fergus, "there's all kinds of historical war games you can obsess over."
"Oh God, those damn things are too complicated," the theoretical physicist replied. "Ever pick up one of those rulebooks? Gack."
"Yeah," Ben said, "good point. Well, it's been nice meeting you, Fergus. I've got to go now. I think maybe you're a little too serious about the game for what I have in mind, which was just a simple competition that I really want to win." He shook Fergus's slightly greasy hand and started for the door.
"Let me give you something first," Fergus said, taking one of seven ballpoint pens from the pocket of his tattered chinos and jotting a note down on the back of a bubble gum wrapper. "This is the address of a man who can really, truly help you if you want to merely become great at the Master game and not the Uber-Master game as I play it. I've never told anyone where this man can be found, and he would certainly have my head if I gave his identity out without good cause, but he is the ultimate APBA guru, a mind so skilled that no one, as far as I know, has ever been able to beat him on a consistent basis, even given the game's reliance on the music of chance."
"Okay, yeah, that I could maybe use," Ben said, taking the wrapper and squinting at the chicken scratch scrawled upon it.
"If you're playing against anything but the Nynaxitron APBA supercomputer at the University of Chicago, which I helped design, I can all but guarantee you that if you agree to submit to his program, you will not lose any tournament, and maybe not even a single game."
"Terrific!" Ben said. "How come I'm so special that you're giving this to me?"
"Because we're like brothers, Mr. Glinton," Fergus told him, looking forlornly at his giant shelf o' player cards. "Two men who reached for the sun only to be stricken down at the last moment, condemned to a life far away from the reach of the cruel mockery of the scientific community—or in your case, the overwhelming majority of the general public. It's too late for me, but maybe you can regain your former glory somehow. I wish you all the best."
"Thanks, man," Ben said, stepping out into the hallway. "I hope you can afford a nicer place sometime."
"Are you sure you don't want to stick around and play just one game with me?" Fergus asked. "I've been working on some new pitcher fatigue charts which take into consideration a player's perspiration levels. I created them through watching hundreds of hours of videotapes."
"No thanks, I've got to get going," Ben said. "Maybe one day I can come back and you can show me some of the stuff you've whipped up for APBA Football."
"Definitely. Take care, young man," Fergus said, and closed the door behind Ben, then turned and allowed himself to be enclosed once again in the dimness of his skanky living space.
"Holy crap," he said aloud, eyes wide. "There's an APBA Football?"
10. You Can't Stop Bentley Harkaby; You Can Only Hope to Contain Him
Ridiculously far away, in beautiful, sunny, but irritatingly cold-at-night San Francisco, California, a tall, stupendously muscled individual was sitting at a table at the back of a bustling downtown convention center signing his autograph at fifty bucks a pop to all who presented themselves with shirts, caps, bats, and what-have-you in hand. This man's name was Spike Vail, and he was considered the third best baseball player alive, behind two guys whose stats weren't necessarily better but who had not publicly demanded five trades in four years and thus presented a more favorable image to the sports writers of America, Roy Skinla included. Spike, thirty-six years old and the owner of thirteen professional batting records, flashed his trademark smile to every fan who approached the table and had, for upwards of two hours now, done a credible job of seeming like the ultimate nice guy who had mesmerized the nation with both his play on the field and in three recent Hollywood action films. Each of these films, in which he had starred with an animated duck named Pepito, the most hard-drinking, hell-raising example of law enforcement waterfowl ever depicted on the big screen, had been savaged by critics and grossed successively less money, but kids still seemed to enjoy them. Hordes of people wandered around the cavernous convention center in search of memorabilia and stars who would adorn it with their signatures. Many held free soft pretzels shaped like the newest New York Guardians' superstar, Im Ho Ngoc Thy.
"You're my hero, Spike!" a boy of nine said to Spike as he held out a New England Nevers pennant for him to sign.
"Thanks, tike," Spike replied. "You're not gonna grow up to challenge my homerun record, are you?" he added with a wink.
"No sir!" the boy piped. "I want to work for Greyhound!"
"Aces," Spike said. When the boy was gone, Spike turned to his agent, a severe-looking young woman whom Spike had never seen crack a smile. "Didn't you send someone to get me a Chunky bar like an hour ago?"
"I'll make some calls," the woman said ominously. "If you don't get that Chunky bar in the next five minutes, we'll sue this place into the ground."
"Um, okay, that sounds a little mean, but whatever you say, Daisy," Spike said. He kept signing his autograph and making polite chit chat with the public, wondering if he would ever be able to free himself from the masses today. He had scenes to shoot for his next two action films, Maximum Fracas and The Death of Pepito, in about three hours, and he had lots of lines to memorize, most of them consisting of subtle variants of the sentence "Let's get the hell out of here."
Just as Spike's right hand was getting sore, a fresh-faced lad of about ten came up to the table, his father beside him. "Can you sign your APBA card, Mr. Vail?" the boy asked, holding it out to him.
Spike took the card and examined it, fascinated. "What is this again?" he asked the boy.
"It's your card from APBA Baseball," the boy informed him matter-of-factly. "You know, the board game."
"Hmmmmm," Spike said as Daisy leaned in beside him to take a severe look at the object in question. "Judging by all these numbers here, it looks like the game is pretty involved."
"Not as good as the one we put your name on, surely," Daisy assured him. In addition to Spike Vail's Happenin' Homerun Derby for video game systems, Spike had also lent his name to a baseball simulation for children called Back Back Back Back Back Back It's Gone! It consisted entirely of a single chart and ten possible play results. The game had been briefly recalled the year before due to the sabotaging of one of the print runs by a crazy man named Bentley Harkaby. The damage had caused the strikeout on the play chart to instead cause a pitcher to give up something called an intentional triple.
Spike signed the card and gave it back to the kid, whose father grinned as the boy danced off with wild excitement, having actually met the man whose posters festooned his bedroom walls. On the PA system, a bored voice announced that a special baseball bloopers DVD was going on sale for ten minutes only, one that featured the infamous swallowed mitt accident from this year's All-Star game.
"I assume we're getting a little money coming in from allowing my name to be licensed for use in this ABBA game, right?" Spike asked Daisy.
"APBA," she corrected. "I'll look into it. There's no reason we can't get you a bit more. I'm sure they'd cave to any demands we cared to make."
"I wonder," Spike said, deep in thought. A man of about forty gave him a T-shirt to sign but Spike absently wrote his name on the man's forearm instead. "I'd like to learn more about this board game," he went on to no one in particular. "How am I assured that they're portraying me as good as I really am? We'll have to make absolutely certain of it. If not, I don't think I can live with that...I'd hate to raise a ruckus about it, but I suppose I'd have no other choice..."
Spike's Chunky bar came two minutes later. It was the kind with raisins—yes, yes, most ideal for his purposes.
11. Selected Meat Products Available by Request
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, population 335,123, home of the steel industry, Heinz Hall, and Jeff Goldblum.
Ben had been traversing the state so thoroughly over the past couple of days that he barely knew which way was up anymore. It was one of the advantages of not being employed. He emerged from Heav-Y-Valu-Rack Discount Clothing and Heel Repair on Monday afternoon wearing a sleek new blue suit, one that had been heavily discounted after it was discovered that some of the stitching seemed to accidentally spell out an anti-Semitic phrase. Just as in his unfortunate hour back at Shinjoda Beneficial Industries, he felt like an idiot in the suit, unfamiliar as he was with most clothing that could not be bought at a sporting goods store. The fine garment even seemed to hide his very minor but growing beer belly, and that was something he just could not abide.
"You look great!" Earl Peavey told him as Ben crossed the sidewalk and entered the little park that sat beside a downtown shopping center. Earl was wearing a suit himself, one of many he owned and felt completely comfortable in. Around him stood Roy and Rick and Curse Williger, each of them similarly dressed. Curse's suit was the one he used to wear on road trips with the Cannons, and Rick's had been bought from a thrift store back in Harrisburg. His pants were about eleven inches too short. He had tied his long hair back for the occasion but had not managed to shave. All in all, the package worked just enough to fool the eye into thinking he was as much a Republican as he was a recreational incense-burner and unconditional tree-hugger.
"Yeah, dude, it's like night and day," Rick said to Ben.
"I just have to remember to hold onto the receipt so I can return this thing in three hours," Ben said. "Okay, is everybody about ready?"
"Just about," Roy said. "Can we go over our roles again?"
"Well, there are no real roles per se," Ben told them, "and I don't think anyone's going to have to actually speak. You just need to look official, like you might work for my company."
"What's the name of the company?" Earl asked.
Ben was at a loss. "Oh yeah, we need a name. Um...Earl, what's that outfit you work for?"
"The United Soy Sauce Coalition," Earl said with an audible tinge of pride.
"Okay, we won't be trying any variation of that," Ben said. He stepped over to the picnic bench the fellows had been sitting at and picked up the first APBA card he saw. They'd of course managed to squeeze in a condensed game with Rick's set while Ben was shopping for his suit. The card belonged to one Don Thoney of the Orlando Sun Snakes. "All right, I am the owner and CEO of the sports merchandising firm of Thoney, Orlando, and Dawn," Ben said. "Wait....what the hell happened here?" He realized that several of the player cards, the baseball diamond, and the playing booklet had been torn into small pieces, while dice were strewn across the ground and one of the shakers was actually dangling from the lowest branch of an elm tree behind his head.
"There was an incident," Curse said quietly. "I apologized, and we should probably just leave it at that."
"Curse was beating Rick 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth and the Guardians hit back-to-back-to-back homeruns," Earl reported. "Curse got a little...mad."
"I have a rage problem and I've admitted it," Curse said, the frighteningly huge muscles in his chest and upper arms flexing tensely as his fist squished a scoresheet.
"I remember," Ben said.
"Man, you should start eating organic," Rick advised. "Eat brown rice instead of white. It'll totally change your outlook."
"Well, if you can get through the next hour without smashing anything to pieces, we should be all right," Ben said. "Let's walk over to the TDSN Building and make ourselves some money." They all turned and headed east, resembling a disorganized pack of gangsters who looked like they still might live with their parents.
The Thunder Dunk Sports Network was founded in the year 2001 as a more energetic alternative to other 24-hour cable sports channels which, in the opinion of true diehard fans, did not take hype nearly far enough. TDSN boldly added a number of unique wrinkles to its televised contests, including a constant rock and roll soundtrack accompanying the comments of the announcers in the booth, the application of live strobe motion effects and color-altering lenses to spruce the action up visually, and an attention-deficit updates technique which assured that the viewer did not have to arduously keep watching the same game without whipping around to others every ninety seconds. Purists may have taken issue with the way TDSN gave its viewers neither the highlights nor even the scores of small market pro teams, or the way they had dumped all hockey coverage in favor of dodge ball, blackjack, and extreme mountainwater riverboarding, but the profits spoke for themselves. Their brand new building in downtown Pittsburgh was all silver and steel and giant murals depicting nothing but touchdowns and homeruns—the only two types of plays allowed by corporate decree to be shown on their hourly sports reports.
Ben and the rest of his staff navigated their way through the building's enormous revolving doors and checked in with the receptionist in the lushly carpeted lobby, where a Def Leppard song was blaring through a set of plainly visible speakers on the front counter. The receptionist was a part-time underwear model currently displaying so much skin that the group, whom she simply directed to the main elevator, wandered disoriented into a janitor's closet. They eventually found their way out and were soon whisked upwards to the thirtieth floor.
"How did you manage to get a meeting with Thor Rollins anyway?" Earl asked Ben, impressed and all a-tingle just to drop the name of one of sports media's flashiest personalities.
"Oh, the name Ben Glinton still has some currency in the sporting world, my friend," Ben replied, omitting from this sentence the story of how his elderly grandfather, General Crustus Glinton, had saved Thor Rollins's great uncle from an incoming German shell in 1943, and how Crustus had never let the man forget it.
"Back to back to back homeruns," Curse muttered under his breath behind them. "Great, just great. This whole city's gonna burn if I don't get out of here quick."
"Brown rice, man," Rick said. "Mind, spirit, united."
The ride ended. It was approximately a seven mile walk from the elevator down the hallway to Thor Rollins's main office (he had seven). Ben pushed open a door that was also an aquarium filled with tropical fish and poked his head into a room two-thirds the size of O'Hare Airport. Unlike O'Hare, though, this place had its own Nathan's Hot Dogs in the corner.
"Come on in, fellas!" the ridiculously blonde-headed Thor Rollins shouted from behind his desk, where he was standing and shooting baskets on a miniature clay court. He wore blue gym sweats and a red headband. Ben and the others walked across the carpet, which was cut and colored like artificial football turf and marked with yard lines. Thor's giant desk was in the end zone. YOU GOT THUNDER DUNKED, giant white letters said inside of it to football players who would never actually touch them. His panoramic picture window overlooked the city and sunlight poured in so dramatically that the man was virtually just a five foot eight inch silhouette before them.
"Ben Glinton," Ben greeted him, and they shook hands cordially before Thor gestured for them to sit down in the many chairs provided them.
"Glad to meet you. You boys want anything to drink? We have everything, including Orangina. Or Andrew over here can whip you up a hot dog. Hot dog, anyone?" He pointed at the little kiosk in the corner of the office, where a bored employee in a folded paper hat read a newspaper and looked up only slightly at the mention of his name.
"I think we're all fine," Ben said. "Ready to do some business."
"All riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight," Thor said, sitting down heavily in his opulent chair, which was probably older than he was. "So what have you got for me to televise, Ben?"
"Well, there's going to be a tournament," Ben said, leaning forward and clasping his hands while the others sat awkwardly, remembering not to say anything under penalty of death. "A cash prize is going to be awarded for athletic excellence. And at this tournament, I'm going to reveal the true secret history of the night of October 21st, 2002, when I pretty much single-handedly ruined my team's chances of winning the world championship."
"I was at that game," Thor said. "The Cannons didn't have much of a chance anyway, really. Your bullpen was just about depleted."
"Oh no, I think most people would agree that I alone completely destroyed us," Ben said, trying to sound modest. "And I think the public has shown a definite interest in wanting to know why someone of my intelligence would do something so phenomenally stupid on the baseball field."
"Could be," Thor said, twiddling his fingers and leaning back in his chair. "So what sort of competition are we talking about? Is it extreme? We could always use more extreme. Our ratings reports show that people especially like to watch men either hoisting or crushing things these days. Something involving either one of those activities would be great."
"Our idea is as extreme as it gets," Ben said. "We want your network to sponsor, are you ready for this...." He drew the sentence out for effect, inching ever more forward on his seat. "...an APBA tournament!"
Thor put a finger to his lips in contemplation. "I know what that is, I think," he said. "Isn't that a board game?"
"Correct!" Ben said, smelling blood in the water. "One of the true tests of managerial intellect outside of the real thing."
"Yeah, I used to play that," Thor said with a fond smile of remembrance. "Me and all the kids in the neighborhood used to get together after school. I recall trying to replay a whole season once all by myself, but I lost my set somewhere. Good times, good times."
"And those good times continue today," Ben told him. "I and the others in my firm here have done some preliminary market research, and we have found many people who still live on the thrill of competition in this, um, realm. We want to stage a tournament in Las Vegas, put up a huge cash prize, and lure the press in with the promise that I, Ben Glinton, will both win the tournament and reveal the secret of my catastrophic failure, live and unscripted for the cameras."
"Was it drugs?" Thor asked. "It was drugs, right?"
"That's what I thought originally," Roy offered.
"It wasn't drugs!" Ben snapped. "What it was will blow people's brains right out of their noses."
"Yeah, brains, okay," Thor said, clasping his hands in front of him on his desk. "The thing is, though, where's the sizzle? Where's the edge?"
"You have your pitcher give up back to back to back homeruns and watch a dude physically attack his opponent, there's your sizzle," Ben said. "I know a guy who practically broke a picnic table in two not a half hour ago."
"Or suffer the heartbreak of thinking you've hit a run-scoring ground ball to second only to find that an X-graded pitcher just turned it into a harmless strikeout!" Earl offered, desperate to be helpful.
"Mmmmmmmmmm," Thor said. "Yeah, I just don't know, fellas. We've sponsored video game tournaments before and we made a bundle, but board games, they're kind of slow and quiet, you know what I'm saying? Not very Generation Y."
"Well," Ben assured him, "we're only going to need twenty thousand dollars as a prize, plus the costs of running the tournament, plus hotel rooms for me and the staff of my company, plus we're going to need card sets for all sorts of seasons of course. And food. And drinks. Maybe tickets to a magic show as a random giveaway."
Thor sighed. "It's just too much of a risk, Ben. Thunder Dunk Sports puts the emphasis on the Wow factor. We have a saying here: 'If you can't scream it, don't bother saying it.' We're committed to presenting only the biggest events and the hippest doings. I'd like to hear the secret of why you tanked the series and all, but we're living in a video game world now. That's what the kids want to hear about. The sound of dice rolling isn't going to cut it. You put Monopoly or Risk in front of some kid today, they're going to fall asleep reading the instructions. Have you seen the graphics on Thunder Dunk Salary Cap Derby 2006? The players' faces seem a little bit smooshed and watery, I know, but a third of all at-bats are dingers. A third! Plus we've introduced the home plate dance. It's the end zone dance concept brought to baseball! That's what we're into."
"That doesn't sound very realistic," Rick noted.
"Realism is the last thing we want to put on TV," Thor said. "Ever tried to actually watch a real baseball game all the way through? I wouldn't recommend it if you're operating a motor vehicle."
"You make good points," Ben said, crossing and uncrossing his legs, "but the tournament I envision will feature one thing the young audience can't seem to get enough of. A thing known as Spike Vail."
"Spike Vail, eh?" Thor said. "You could guarantee he'd be involved?"
"Oh, easily," Ben lied shamelessly. "He and I are good buds from back in the day. We almost both played for Guardians." Instantly seventy percent of his brain went to work on isolating the lie, studying it for cracks in the foundation, and applying cheap rubber cement to those cracks in the form of follow-up lies which would at least get him another meeting with this TV doofus at a later date.
"Spike Vail is a start," Thor said. "How else could we pep this puppy up?"
"How about girls?" Roy suggested, having no idea what he meant by it. He often tended to think about girls, being wholly unable to get one since junior high school. His failure to find a date sometimes manifested itself through the way he found himself issuing a simple verbal statement of their existence. It brought him some comfort.
"Hot girls play APBA now?" Thor asked. "How the hell did that happen?"
"Marketing," Ben said quickly. "It's all about marketing. You should have seen the chicks who showed up when I started an APBA group. Man oh man."
"What else?" Thor said, getting interested. "Spike Vail, hot girls, maybe a little co-sponsorship by a certain whiskey manufacturer that owes us a favor....it's starting to come into focus..."
"Bands, of course," Ben said. "It's the only reason people watch the Super Bowl anymore. Long-haired deadbeats singing unintelligible lyrics about their love lives. Ooh yeah!"
"Bands!" Thor agreed, slapping his hand on his desk. "We can turn it into a total rock and roll party, like we did with the British Open! Yes!"
"And naturally, losing a game is not what gets you booted from our tournament," Ben said, taking one last grab at the big brass ring. "You're out only when the viewers vote you out. The panel of judges which harshly critiques your play will sway the voting of course, but the opinions of the slack-jawed rubes at home are what thin the herd and keep the long distance and text messaging charges funneling money through the back door."
"You, sir, are a genius!" Thor cried. "The slack-jawed rubes are always the linchpin! It's like you've read our corporate mission statement top to bottom!"
"No!" blurted a strong, deep voice to Ben's left. Curse Williger stood up in his ungodly uncomfortable gray suit and glared at Thor Rollins with eyes of fire and ominous C-chords resounding in his voice. "I'm not going to stand here and watch you cheapen the game I love! You're going to give us that money and you're going to put the cameras on a bunch of nobodies playing quietly and respectfully!"
"Ah, Ben, this man works for your firm?" Thor asked, offended.
"In the mailroom," Ben said. "We brought him on the trip because he has one of those big folding street maps...."
"My whole career, guys like this cheapened baseball!" Curse raged. "Helmet cams, interviewing managers in the dugout in the middle of the game, making us wait longer between innings to start pitching so they could cram more commercials in....somebody's got to take a stand!"
"Hey pal," Thor challenged, "this ain't PBS; we're actually trying to keep people's attention. I don't think adding some swooshing noises when stats pop up on the screen ever killed anybody."
"You're making sports fans dumber and more impatient than ever," Curse told him. "Well, the board game we play that's so boring to you just makes you smarter. Smart enough to get the hell out of here."
Ben stood up and put a hand on Curse's shoulder. "What my colleague is saying, obviously, is that we're willing to explore every possible option to make the tournament as viewer-friendly as possible, including putting in some kind of murder mystery."
"I think Curse is right, dude," Rick said to Ben. "TDSN is filled with impurities. Sports-wise."
Ben pointed an accusing finger at each one of them except Thor. "Why did I hire you people for my firm?" Ben demanded to know. "Who are you really working for? Who sent you?"
"Let's table this for now until you can get your staff under control," Thor said. "Meanwhile I'll have some employee or the other get in touch with Spike Vail's people and see if maybe there's something worth talking about at some point."
"Spike Vail has no idea who we are, that was a total lie," Curse said. "He's too busy strapping a microphone to his jersey so people at home can hear his stupid chit-chat in the dugout. Come on, guys, let's get out of here before we get sucked into some rotisserie league." He turned and headed for the exit.
"Whatever you've heard about Spike Vail's spontaneous dugout comments to his teammates being completely scripted by interns is totally false!" Thor said, suddenly red-faced. "Who have you been talking to?"
But they had already more or less departed, except for Ben, who leaned over the desk to shake Thor's hand. "Great talking to you," Ben said. "I think Curse is mistaking you for an uncle he used to have, there was some bad blood there, so give me a call." With that, he turned and slunk out of the office. He thought briefly about grabbing a hot dog on the way out, then decided it probably wouldn't help his chances of striking a deal.
The others stood quietly beyond the door that was also an aquarium, looking sheepish, including Curse. When Ben emerged, he merely looked them up and down with vague distaste and then started down the hallway.
"Sorry, Ben," Curse said. "But come on, this whole place is all wrong for us."
"I think I agree," Earl added. "By the time the tournament started, we probably would have forgotten what it was all about, with all those cameras and those network goons around, and that TDSN theme music playing in our heads all the time."
"Which they completely ripped off from Grand Funk Railroad," Rick noted. "I can prove it."
"I'm not speaking to any of you until I've safely gotten a refund for this suit," Ben said as they all got into the elevator. "Only then will I listen to more of your plans to destroy my dream. And only after we've eaten something. I'll be choosing where that meal takes place, if you all don't mind. I was thinking about Hamburger Vampire, unless there are any sudden, unpredicted, and irrational objections."
The others offered no resistance, though there was more than one silent seed of opposition to the Hamburger Vampire idea. As far as fast food burger places with supernatural themes, it was not one of the best.
"So," Earl said gently, "what's the next move?"
Ben gazed intently at the little display of lights tracking their downward progress through the Thunder Dunk building. "Well, I'm going to need some serious time for reflection and logical thinking," he said. "The meetings and gaming sessions will go on in my apartment as usual, but you probably won't see me for a couple of weeks...maybe three. There's a place I go when I need to really sit and carefully sort things out without making rash decisions. It's a little farm my family owns. I'm going to go there and analyze the situation, and only after I examine every possible alternative will I return and inform you what we're going to try next. If you don't hear from me, don't worry. It only means that I'm taking my time, looking at everything from every conceivable angle, so that we don't make any more critical errors in judgment."
12. Eighteen Hours Later, Ben Pulled Up In Front of Harold's House After Spending A Great Deal of Money He Did Not Have on an RV and Deciding They Were All Headed on the Spur of the Moment to Las Vegas
Eighteen hours later, Ben pulled up in front of Harold's house after spending a great deal of money he did not have on an RV and deciding they were all headed on the spur of the moment to Las Vegas. When the entire APBA Collective, having been summoned to Harold's place by a series of mysterious late night phone calls from Ben, saw him pull up to the curb, their jaws dropped at the spectacle of Ben honking like a crazy person and accidentally clipping both of Harold's trash cans, sending them bouncing across the lawn. He killed the engine of the off-white, rather grotesque-looking mechanical beast—TRAVEL OPTION was the name brand of the RV, stenciled in silver and unfamiliar to them all—and hopped out, grinning from ear to ear. The group came hesitantly forward, Earl putting a protective arm around his son's shoulders for fear that either the vehicle or Ben himself might suddenly lurch forward and crush them all.
"Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?" Ben said, turning with them to admire his purchase. "It's like the freaking Eiffel Tower if you stuck a bunch of wheels on it and put in a bathroom."
"Ben, what have you done?" Harold asked. He could psychically feel his wife's horrified gaze beaming suspicion down upon the lawn from an upstairs window. "Where did you get the money to buy this thing?"
"A little invention called plastic," Ben said. "I had almost completely forgotten I had a Discover card until you told me about that co-worker of yours who had to declare bankruptcy last month. I went down to Shammy's Showcase of Definitive Rides and grabbed this puppy almost as soon as I saw it."
"But why?" Harold asked. "You already have a place to live."
"Well, actually I really don't," Ben said, "because it turns out my building's getting demolished at the end of the week, but that has nothing to do with it. We're all going to Las Vegas for the tournament—and we're leaving today, if possible."
"Las Vegas?" Rick said, bewildered.
"I'll tell you of this wondrous turn of events as I give you all a grand tour of the place you'll be sleeping in as we head across this great land of ours," Ben said, and opened a door into the RV, jumping in with aplomb. With great reluctance, Harold stepped in, followed by Earl, Jake, Rick, Curse, Roy, and Templeton, who actually seemed more impressed than any of them. It had long been his secret dream to journey across America in an RV, making notes as he went for a two thousand page novel about the more uninteresting parts of the nation's highway system.
"Check it out," Ben said, sweeping his arm across the interior of the somewhat cramped mobile home. "Just barely enough room for everybody, if two people improvise with the sleeping arrangements. There's a fridge, a tiny little stove, a dining room table where we can eat and play APBA, and a TV. Three hundred thousand miles on it, but it purrs along like a cat after a roast beef dinner."
"You, um, expect us all to drop our lives and head off to Las Vegas?" Harold asked.
"Sounds like fun, Ben, but I don't get any vacation time at the paper until I work there for two years without using a sick day," Roy said.
"I don't think my wife would be too crazy about a trip like that," Earl added.
"I'm ready to go!" Jake cried, opening the mini-fridge and sticking his hand inside. "It's cold! It's really cold!"
"Las Vegas," Ben told them, "will be the site of our tournament, to take place one week from today. I've already called the Lucky Ape Hotel and Casino and arranged for the use of their conference center, and I've bombarded the internet with news of the competition. I've also alerted dozens of media sources via e-mail—thank you, Kinko's of South Harrisburg. Wheels have been set in motion. Wheels, gentlemen."
"What about the prize money?" Roy asked. "Oh, wait, you found a way to put that on the credit card too! Superb!" He whipped out his tiny notebook to quickly jot down the details of this scheme for the biography.
"No, no, that didn't happen," Ben said. "There was only enough room on the card to buy the RV."
"So how has the prize money issue been settled?" Templeton asked.
Ben smiled wide and threw his hands up in the air. "Beats the hell out of me!" he said happily. "But if I could buy a sweet RV and set up the tournament in all of four hours, that last part won't be too much of a problem, I don't think."
"You didn't go on the internet and already promise that money, did you?" Harold asked, closing his eyes in terror.
"More or less. Come on, everybody, let's go for a spin around the block and see what this little darling can do." He fired up the engine, which honestly sounded a little like the stuttering of a faulty Commodore 64 hard drive.
Harold turned. "That's it, Ben, you've gone off your rocker. I'm telling Deenie that—"
"Okay, we're just pulling away from the curb here," Ben said, and they were off before Harold could escape. The others grabbed seats as quickly as they could before the sudden swerve knocked them off their feet. Bundles, a dozing neighborhood cat which belonged to no one in particular—but who had, in fact, been silent witness to the latest attempted atrocity by the fiendish but rather inefficient Pool Skimmer Strangler—yelped at the oncoming goliathan and scampered out of the way, vowing revenge as much as any cat could manage it.
"It's going to take me a little while to get the hang of operating something this size," Ben noted as he came within inches of sideswiping a passing Jetta. "Maybe when we cross into the Midwest we can start sharing the driving duties."
"Tell us again," Harold said, rubbing his temple, "why we're expected to do this crazy thing?"
"I've anticipated all your possible objections," Ben said, "and it's like this. All of us in this awesome vehicle share one thing in common: we've just about exhausted the possibilities of making something exciting happen with our lives. We're all tied down to our jobs and our wives and kids, and our youth is rapidly running out."
The obvious fallacy of the very foundation of Ben's argument was grasped within a quarter of a second by every person on board the ship, and confused glances were exchanged. Roy, Rick, Curse, Jake, and Templeton were about to speak up with wishes that they not be so hastily included in his hyperbolic statement, but Ben had already moved on to point number two.
"Secondly, what are the chances of a bunch of guys from different backgrounds, but all sharing a passion for one thing, getting together for a genuine road adventure with guaranteed excitement at the end of it? Isn't that the kind of thing that you remember for the rest of your life? And how many of us have had any adventures in our adulthoods worth remembering? I played big league baseball for years, and even that's all just a blur of bad hotels and foul balls to the right side."
This, none of them could truly deny. Roy scanned his memories of his few post-college years for any hint of excitement outside buying an iPod and getting a single promising response to one of his many internet personal ads. The girl had turned out to be a shrewish co-worker with a face like an angry squid. Templeton thought about all the arduous weeks, months, and years in front of his manual typewriter, producing work after work of undeniable brilliance but sleepwalking through awards ceremony after awards ceremony. To Earl, adulthood had meant the responsibility of providing for his family and raising Jake in absolute terror that the boy might wind up with anything less than a 1700 on his SATs or fall in with that rough crowd which went to movies and rode bicycles. Harold's mind flashed with images of his receding hairline and of his front lawn, whose maintenance had utterly consumed him over the past few years. Rick had had some good times at World Bank protests, but he had never actually been arrested, which saddened him to no end. What did you have to do to get the attention of the cops nowadays? Strangle somebody with a pool skimmer?
"Thirdly," Ben said, "if we don't all go at once, on the spur of the moment, we'll hem and haw and think of all kinds of reasons to put it off and put it off, and eventually we'll start to want to stage the tournament within one mile of where we live for the convenience factor, and somebody will get the sniffles and want to back out, and somebody else will have to go attend their mother-in-law's half-sister's new baby's circumcision, and somebody else will remember that they promised to stand in for the lead actor in some local production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial with an all-deaf cast—you know, all the excuses that make us boring adults with no spark for risk in our lives. Well, I'm not going to become that guy. Will you?" He made the mistake of looking at Jake when he delivered this last line, but then quickly shifted his accusatory gaze to Harold.
"I have not done something spontaneous in twenty years," Templeton said, taking out his pipe. "I had a chance to jet off to Africa when The New Yorker asked me to go write a piece on Angola, but I said no. I didn't think my knees would like the dry climate."
"We could see some crazy stuff on the road," Rick said optimistically. "The real America, too, probably, before it was destroyed by corporate greed and synthesizers."
"I guess it would be essential for the biography," Roy said. "I suppose I could convince my boss somehow..."
"Oh, could we stop at the Robert Oppenheimer Museum?" Jake asked, bouncing on his hands excitedly.
"I don't think this would be any sort of journey for a young boy," Earl said, trying to contain Jake's emotions. "I suppose my wife would let me go, Ben, she's always saying I should spend some time alone and as far away from her as possible."
"Hell, I'm in," Curse said. "I got nothing going on. My anger management group is always trying to get us to interact with other people more. They're a bunch of worthless stupid spineless ugly jerks, but I guess it makes sense. And I really want to win that tournament, too."
"That just leaves you, Harold," Ben said, putting a hand on his best friend's shoulder. "How about it? This is the part where you think about it for a minute, and then you look at everyone's faces, and then you give in, and then everyone lets out a cheer. So yeah, do that now so everyone can get home and start packing."
"How in the world do you think Deenie would let me bounce off to Las Vegas for a week or two?" Harold asked.
"How strong is your marriage?" Ben asked him.
"It's really strong, you know that," Harold said, somewhat embarrassed. "We love and trust each other completely."
"Then you should take off before she wakes up tomorrow and just leave a note on the counter," Ben urged. "A bond like yours can easily survive some modest hijinks like these. Just be sure to leave her some flowers and a promise that you'll romance her like mad when you get back."
"Isn't that the same technique that made Pippagail finally divorce you?" Harold asked. "When you snuck off for four days to go see that taping of The Drew Carey Show?"
"Pippagail divorced me because of a mutual decision that she was the Devil," Ben said. "Now before this stoplight turns green, I want your answer. And remember who was the best man at that sick wedding you let Gordy stage for his hamsters, and who was your only real friend on the Cannons, save for that suck-up Craig Tomarkin."
Harold thought about it for a minute and then looked at everyone's faces. Ben was leaning forward in anticipation, slowly allowing the RV to creep forward into the intersection. Someone honked and he pressed harder on the dangerously loose brake pedal before he killed somebody.
"If I go with you," Harold said, "you have to baby-sit Gordy whenever he needs it for the next full year."
"Done!" Ben said. "A delightful child. Wish he was my own."
"And you have to stop calling me Turkey Boat when we're around other people. I don't even know what you mean by that."
"Done. I wasn't sure either."
"And Roy has to say nice things about me in your biography. I wasn't much of a baseball player, but there's no reason people can't know that I tried to be a nice person."
Roy shrugged. "Sure, Harold. I've already written good things about you. I won't forget that you tried to set me up with your sister, either. Too bad she doesn't go for the unmanly type."
"She may change," Harold said. "She's a little crazy."
"Then we have an entire platoon of soldiers ready to head into ultimate battle!" Ben cried. "We're leavin' for Vegas tomorrow at noon!"
He did not get the eruption of applause and backslapping he had expected; it was more like the general murmur of half-hearted approval one might hear when a public library's acquisitions board agrees to buy a new copy of Dean Koontz's Watchers to replace one that some young punk had no intention of ever returning. But it was good enough. Ben tooted the RV's horn once for good measure, utterly terrifying a ninety-one year old woman who was making her way through a crosswalk, and the names of the TRAVEL OPTION's crew were cemented into dubious decision history. The TRAVEL OPTION itself had a very minor catastrophic breakdown at the edge of Harold's street as they returned to the house, but for a Luddite, Rick displayed an impressive knowledge of the unsightly heap's electrical system and he managed to get it up and running again by swapping a few fuses and re-routing two cables whose purpose was somewhat of a mystery and whose aroma of charred pork would remain worrisome. They were all to meet at Ben's apartment the next day with as much APBA paraphernalia as they owned and with the absolute minimum of other personal possessions. Most of the group was haunted that night by frightening dreams that seemed to foretell a horrific fate beyond the Rocky Mountains and warn them vividly not to get in any motorized or even hand-propelled vehicle with Ben even one more time. These were shrugged off as being caused by high-carb meals and the plan rolled on apace.
13. Provoke Not the Wrath of Mrs. Sippingcorb
As it turned out, Harold's beloved wife was more than happy to let her husband travel to the wilds of Nevada with a bunch of his friends. At first Harold thought this was most disturbing, especially with a murderer running loose in the neighborhood, but Deenie explained that she meant to seize the opportunity to take their son for a week-long journey to colonial Williamsburg, the one and only travel location Harold had refused to visit in all the years of their marriage. It was actually the sole issue on which he had stood his ground in any aspect of life since the mid-eighties. He justified his hatred for colonial Williamsburg with obscure arguments about the inauthenticity of some of the exhibits and attractions, but in reality, he was possessed by an unnatural terror of the clothing worn during that period of American history. The sight of a tri-cornered hat or a white bonnet made him break into a sweat, and catching a glimpse of any sort of monocle or beige button-up vest made his heart race with fear. He would go to his grave someday never understanding the cause of this affliction, or even revealing its power over him to anyone but Ben. As it turned out, his failure to accompany his wife would allow her the unexpected freedom to attend all sorts of incredibly boring colonial cooking demonstrations, condemning Harold to even more years of experimental meal ideas which he would suffer in morose silence.
Even more surprising was the presence of one Jake Peavey on the ride to Vegas. His mother, who had been secretly worrying that the boy's uneasiness around natural sunlight was getting to be a chronic problem, agreed after much discussion that he would be better off driving across America for two weeks than holed up in his room with his ant farms and old issues of The Economist, provided his father didn't destroy him by exposing him to the various horrifying elements that cavorted about the west. Earl Peavey hadn't actually mentioned the words 'Las Vegas' in his plans, replacing them with the term 'fascinating and historically significant dry-mining ghost town of Delmar' at the most key moments, and while this half-truth certainly saved the trip for both of them, Earl was certain it would condemn him to an afterlife in hell.
"Okay, let's see what you think of what I have so far," Roy was saying to Ben as the two of them sat in the RV's dining area while Rick guided them towards Ohio on Sunday afternoon. They had been on the road for about three and a half hours and the dining table had seen no actual food action but more than a few APBA games, with Templeton and Jake getting into some hot and heavy dice rolling craziness involving all-star teams they had drafted from scratch. Templeton had tried out some new managerial theories of his, including spreading his best hitters throughout the lineup instead of bunching them at the top, and playing with wild aggressiveness on the base paths. Jake had countered his gambits by playing straightforward ball and he had taken two games out of three when Templeton and most of the others on board had decided to chill out and simply gaze at the scenery that passed them by as Rick drove them along at speeds well above the legal limit. (In his heart, he knew that the best hope they had for getting all the way across the country in this disastrous dinosaur was to just floor it and hope that sheer forward momentum would counter the engine's many failings.) There would be plenty of time tonight for everyone to play some experimental games they had always wanted to try, in which they would throw the best players among all their card sets against the absolute worst, just to see what happened. In the meantime, Roy had produced all his notes for Ben's biography for a good hour or so of brainstorming about how best to approach the touchy subject of the night of October 21, 2002.
" 'The October air was arduous in the bottom of the eleventh inning as Ben slithered into the batter's box,' " Roy quoted from his notes. " 'With one out, the opportunity for Jason Blaze to purloin second base was definitely there for the taking, but Greeny St. Clair had confidence in Ben's power against Rick Shelrik. With only a single run necessary to etch the names of all twenty-six of the Kentucky Cannons into the history books, and with Ben desperate to make up for his amazing gaffe in the ninth, everything seemed to be falling into place. When Shelrik fell behind 1-0, the boos around the stadium were replaced by a syrupy quiet.' "
Ben thought about it. "Not a bad start," he said. "But there were really only twenty-five of us on the roster. We were one man short because Mike Morgan suddenly retired after Game Four when he got a MacArthur Genius grant for all his isotope research. Strange, strange guy."
Roy upended his pencil and erased some words, adding others, then read on. " 'The 1-1 pitch was a fast ball right down the middle, but Shelrik had forgotten to add any zing to it and it zanged instead. Ben swung and cranked the ball deep to left field. The crowd leapt to its feet in excitement. Ben launched into his homerun trot halfway to first base, knowing for sure that the series was over, that he had redeemed himself, and that a pageant of jollity would swarm him when he touched that final rectangle in the dirt. The fact that there was no sudden roar from the crowd, which should have come as the ball sailed over the fence as he rounded first, apparently did not register in his spacious mind. He trotted on, oblivious, already tasting the champagne that awaited the Cannons in the clubhouse.' "
"Our owner didn't allow alcohol on the property," Ben said. "He filled the champagne bottles with unsweetened iced tea. Even if we had won, there wouldn't have been any carbonation in them to spray anybody with. We would have shaken them up, pointed them at each other, popped the cork, and tea would have dribbled out. And they call me an idiot."
Roy did a little more erasing.
" 'Upon rounding third base, Ben sensed something was amiss,' " Roy continued. " 'He saw only Kevin Hanley, the Guardian's catcher, standing dumbfounded at home plate, holding the ball in his mitt. Ben walked right into it with all the force of a snail bumping into a stop sign. Dozens of photographers captured his expression at that moment. That infamous photo would become the cover of Terence Von Sneed's exhaustive and Nobel prize-winning ten-volume history of the twentieth century, bumping images of both the battles of D-Day and the first moon landing.' "
"To be fair, I did make an effort to jostle the ball out of Kevin Hanley's mitt," Ben protested.
"Are you sure?" Roy asked. "I was watching that game, and it didn't really look like it."
"Oh yeah," Ben said. "When I realized what had happened, I slapped at that glove pretty hard."
"Positive?" Roy asked shyly. "I've read accounts of the game, and no one ever said—"
"I'm not sure how he held on to the ball with the whacking I gave that mitt, in fact," Ben interrupted. "You gotta give him credit. He just wanted it more."
"I brought a tape of the game along," Roy said. "Maybe when we get to Las Vegas we can pop it in and—"
"All right," Ben said, slumping in his seat, "I didn't even remember to try to knock the ball out of his glove. Happy? My God, is there no positive spin you're willing to put on that play, or anything about that night? Have I not promised you homemade cookies tonight?"
"I'm just worried that no one will think the book is honest if I start fibbing a little here and there," Roy said. "And then no one will pay any attention to the rest of it."
"Okay, look," Ben said with resignation, "I agreed to let you write whatever you wanted about that night. I agreed to let you spend two full pages on how I failed my Camp Wampum archery test the first three times I took it. I agreed to tell you about how I missed a series in Toronto once because I got my finger stuck in the keys of an accordion. So how about at least letting me pick the title for this monstrosity?"
"Oh sure, I can live with that," Roy said. "Any ideas?"
Ben put his hands up in a primitive framing gesture. "Standing on the Misty Mountain of Hope: Baseball, Society, and Ben Glinton's Struggle to Overcome the Odds," he said.
Roy chewed the end of his pencil. "Sounds a little long," he said. "For the spine."
"How about Assault in Lexington: America's War on the Ballplayer Who Tried."
Roy had been writing Ben's thoughts down, but he stopped long before Ben even got to the colon on this last one. "Sounds a little bit....self-pitying," he said.
Ben thought for a moment. "I Never Wept for My Uncle."
"Ooh, what does that mean?" Roy asked. "Is there a good personal story there?"
"No, I just can't stand the man," Ben said. "What if we do a play on words, like combine 'Glinton' with 'rocket ship' or something like that?"
"I'll work on it, but it could be tough," Roy said.
"Well, no time to work on it tonight," Ben said, "I've got a surprise for everybody." He stood up. "We're headed to a ball game, people!"
The others looked around from their daydreaming with raised eyebrows.
"Ball game?" Templeton said. "Where?"
"It's off to see the Cleveland Oarsmen battle the Oakland Raftermen in fairly meaningless mid-July action," Ben said. "I bought tickets in advance, so we're all gonna go and turn that stadium upside down!"
"I haven't been inside a baseball stadium in two years," Curse said. "Should be interesting."
"All right, the Cleveland Oarsmen!" Jake said. "I used their lineup in my science project about how foul balls shorten a player's career!"
"I haven't been to a game since I was a kid," Rick said as he steered them down the road. "It got so commercial. Like, when are they going to just start painting ads for porn on the field, you know?"
"I haven't been in a while either," Ben said. "In fact, even going near a stadium makes me a little sick. This should be interesting. Rick, take the next exit. We've been suffering on the road for too long!"
The stadium in Cleveland was pretty much a duplicate of every stadium built in the last fifteen years. Its much-heralded and extremely expensive throwback look would, of course, be mocked and whined about in another few decades just as the cookie cutter stadiums of the sixties and seventies were, but for now, people seemed to be enjoying themselves as they entered the park, confident that their vote to publicly fund the place had finally given the middle and upper classes a new neighborhood in which to buy designer sheets and eat at Fuddrucker's. Ben and the others made their way up to the nosebleed seats holding pretzels and sodas and hot dogs and beer as a cozy summer twilight settled in.
"How does it feel?" Roy asked Ben as they leafed through their programs, hoping that their number sequences on page 77 would win them the seventh inning giveaway and fund the prize money for the Vegas tournament.
"So far, so good," Ben said. "My breathing is even. Pulse rate okay. Nobody's recognized me. How about you, Curse?" He leaned forward and looked down their row of seats at him. Curse had pulled his cap way down low over his eyes.
"Seven dollars for a small beer; these people should be forced to eat a time bomb and dropped into a hive of wasps soaked in arsenic," he commented.
They stood for the anthem and the game began. In the top of the first inning, there were two hits, two walks, three visits to the mound, a pitching change, a meeting in the infield, a disputed call, eleven tosses from the pitchers to first base (only one of which was a genuine pickoff move), an equipment swap, a re-sweeping of the batter's box, and fourteen foul balls. The inning took twenty-seven minutes to resolve.
"Oh my God, is baseball really this boring?" Ben asked wonderingly as a Coldplay song boomed on the PA system. "I don't watch it, I just played it. People just have to sit here for three hours? Is it possible?"
"How come the next half inning hasn't started yet?" Curse asked no one in particular. "Why are we waiting? It was one thing to toss the ball around between innings, but jeez, I never thought how you have to pay to watch it."
"It's kinda weird how a new reliever gets to throw a bunch of warm-up pitches," Rick noted. "Like, shouldn't you practice off the field? Can't you be prepared when you come into game? Aren't these guys professionals?"
"Did you see the way everyone was stepping out of the batter's box after every pitch?" Ben asked. "Did I do that? Oh Lord, if I did that I am so sorry, people."
"Seems like you should only get so many mound conferences," Earl mused. "They don't give you unlimited timeouts in football."
"And in basketball, just try asking for everyone to stop what they're doing so you can adjust your equipment or adjust your jersey," said Roy.
"The action of the game itself is indeed somewhat obfuscated by vast stretches of nothingness," Templeton noted. "But it is the nothingness that gives us time to ruminate, appreciate the stillness, the strategy, the je ne sais quoi that makes baseball what it is."
"I suppose," Ben said. "Still, seems like we could wrap this baby up in about an hour fifteen if everyone would just make an effort."
"Jake, what are you doing?" Earl asked his son, who had set aside the remains of his ten dollar chicken fingers combo meal and removed a box from his backpack.
"I want to play a game between these teams with APBA at the same time," he said, removing the game components. "If I hold it all real careful on my lap, I'll bet I won't spill anything."
"Cool," Rick said beside him. "I'll hold the field and keep score if you want. Actually, why don't you let me manage the Oarsmen."
"Oh, is that the most recent card set?" Templeton asked, leaning in for a look. "You've got your work cut out for you, Rick; last year's Oarsmen had no bullpen before Steve Queeby arrived."
"True, but I think I can hold my own, as long as Mike Mars pulls his weight with the bat when I need it for once in his life," Rick said, opening up the Cleveland team envelope and beginning to construct his lineup as Jake produced two dice shakers.
"Fellas, you're going to play APBA when you have an actual game unfolding right in front of you?" Roy asked.
"In the time it takes these jokers to get to the seventh inning stretch, we'll have finished a double-header," Rick said. "All right, let's see here...you gonna start a left-hander, Jake? 'Cause if you are, I have some decisions to make."
"If you're talking double-header, I want in on the second game," Curse interjected.
"I'll hold the sacrifice booklet, Jake," his father offered. "Looks like you might have a little trouble balancing it all."
"You know what would be a big help, Roy, is if you supported the box on your knees so we could toss the dice in it," said Rick. "Thanks, that'd be great." He handed the box to Roy, who took it without protest. He looked to Ben, who merely shrugged and sank a little lower in his seat.
As the game on the field went on, the spectators around the group became a little confused at the way their shouts of glee and excitement were often at odds with the actual action down below them. Ben did his best to try to focus on the real game, wanting to get his money's worth, but by the fourth inning, when a 9-0 Oakland lead promised a marathon of quiet pain for all ticket holders, he pretty much gave up and devoted his attention to the way the cards on Jake's lap were creating a back-and-forth, 4-4, thirteen inning duel in which Street Smith, the Cleveland third baseman who had been traded over the winter, knocked two doubles and a triple to rally his team time and time again. Meanwhile, Smith's actual self just four hundred feet away was suffering through a forgettable 0 for 4 night, stranding men on base like it was going out of style. In the sixth inning, with the score on the field 12-1, people began to empty out of the stands, and everyone but Ben and Roy moved down a couple of rows, not for a better view, but because it gave them a little more room to stretch out with the second game of their double-header. Even though that one was a total blowout, it was completed well before the fat lady sang for the true life Oarsmen.
"Thank you for coming to tonight's game!" the PA announcer said to the remaining fans at 11:19 p.m. "We hope to see you again soon. And on the way out, ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for two former stars who have joined us tonight: Ex-Cannon Walter Williger..."
There was scattered applause from around the park and the giant video screen in center field showed a live shot of Walter's cap-covered face as he finished off the last of his second beer. He lifted a weak hand in a wave, not bothering to take the beer away from his mouth.
"Oh crap!" Ben cried, getting to his feet. "Come on, everyone, hold on to the person next to you and get to the highest row you can! Don't make eye contact with anyone! When they say my name, put your fingers in your ears and just wait for it to end!"
"....and former Cincinnati Chewers standout Jim Lucas!" the announcer finished. There was louder applause for the home town hero as Ben froze with one leg over the row of seats in front of him. He looked around, stunned.
"What the hell?" he said as he was ignored by the thousands of people filing for the exits.
"Looks like you lucked out, Ben," said Earl. "They missed you."
"What am I, a ghost?" Ben said, offended. "I didn't even wear a cap. Is my face so forgettable?"
"Don't you want to go unnoticed?" Roy asked.
"Not anymore, we need publicity for the tournament!" Ben said. "The more people hate me now, the more dramatic my confession will be next Saturday!" He stood up on his seat and began waving his arms. "Hey, everyone, it's Bitter Ben Glinton!" he shouted. "Over here! I'm still alive! Remember me?!"
People looked over at Ben as they moved down the aisle, but no one seemed to believe that the real Ben Glinton, even given his history of poor decision-making, would be stupid enough to go out of his way to call attention to himself. "Sad, what someone will claim just to get on the center field camera," one fan remarked, while another went home thinking that mental illness had many faces: some people thought they were Napoleon, others thought they were disgraced baseball players. Disturbing.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, people, let me have some abuse!" Ben shouted. "Bring on the hate!" He lost his balance at one point and slipped off the seat, scraping his shin.
Earl leaned close to Roy's ear. "You don't, ah, have to put this incident in his biography, do you?" he asked him.
Roy shook his head. "I'm leaving so much stuff out for courtesy's sake," he said, "the book may wind up being twenty pages long."
Ben gave up his histrionics soon enough and they left the ballpark. In the parking lot, Ben was finally recognized by a passing spectator. It was his third grade teacher. Elderly Mrs. Sippingcorb asked him what he had gone on to do in life beyond the confines of French Rope Elementary School. Ben told her he had become a Braillist. She smiled politely and wished him good luck. On the car ride back home, she told her husband that she could have smacked that series-bungling doofus for lying to her face, and that she'd had to restrain herself from shoving her old Cannons cap right up his cavernous nose.
14. Whither the Curtis L. Sackler Effect?
The magic bus broke down once again in the early morning hours of the following day. They had set in for the night in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart outside Tiffin, Ohio, which thrilled Jake to no end. He had never been camping, and this was somehow even better. He stayed up till two in the morning and his father took him into the store for fifteen minutes to look at the kind of people who went to Wal-Mart at two in the morning. Before everyone went to sleep for the night, Rick told them all a ghost story so horrifying that Harold had a little trouble dozing off, imagining the vengeful spirit of The One-Eyed Octopus Hunter from Furthest Lovecraftia was galloping towards him on his six-legged horse, harpoon in his right hand, pitchfork in his left, and a chainsaw in the third hand that grew from his forehead during full moons. Templeton and Curse had nodded off sitting in the seats they'd chosen for the trip, while Jake and Earl stretched out on rickety shelves that folded out from the wall. Ben and Roy slept on the floor like bookends facing opposite ways, and Rick slouched in the dining area.
When everyone woke up, Ben was waiting for them with a nourishing McDonald's breakfast, which sealed the deal for Jake: this was the greatest trip anyone had ever taken anywhere, period. His youthful dreams of journeying to Reykjavik to explore the wonders of a country with a one hundred percent literacy rate and chessboards as far as the eye could see were all but forgotten.
"So how much success did you have with your internet media campaign?" Roy asked Ben between mouthfuls of microwaved pancake.
"I don't know, we'll have to stop at a library so I can check my e-mail," Ben told the gang. "I tried to give the whole thing a shot in the arm any way I could. I figured it wouldn't quite be enough to say that I was going to reveal my secret, so I dangled some other stuff too."
"Like what?" Earl asked, devouring a sausage patty. As long as Earl Peavey was around, unfinished sausage patties did not stand a chance in hell.
"Like I tossed Emmitt's name out there, for one thing," Ben said. "Nothing like a couple of Pulitzer Prizes to attract a loyal literary following."
Templeton stopped in mid-chew. "Ah, Ben, perhaps I never told you about my aversion to meeting with the general public. I hope you didn't promise anything extraordinary."
"Just that you'd be signing anything anyone happened to show up with," Ben said, and Templeton closed his eyes, feeling a headache come on.
"I haven't done a signing since my first book was released," Templeton said. "I have a reputation as a bit of a hermit. People were just starting to accept it."
"Apologies," Ben said. "But since we all agreed not to charge an entry fee, I was grasping at straws. Also, the cash prize will have to be paid out on the spot in twenty dollar bills. I figured that would make it all more exciting and camera-friendly."
"The nineteen thousand, four hundred and fifty dollars which we still don't have, and now have a little over five days to come up with," Harold said. "Do you have a plan B for getting it yet?"
"Not in the sense that there's an actual, tangible plan B you can set up on an easel and point at with a stick, no."
"What happens if it just never materializes?"
"Then I'll just have to resort to...The Call," Ben said ominously. "A call that will take every fiber of my intestinal fortitude to make. A call that carries with it risk, danger, sacrifice, and even superhuman demands on our collective physical strength—but which will get us the money we require. I don't ever want to have to make it, but if it comes to it, that mountain shall be climbed, oh yes."
"Ben, for a cause like this, I would be willing to put up the prize money," Templeton offered.
"Much appreciated, Emmitt," Ben replied, "but I feel it's my destiny now to make everything happen with my own hand. I don't want to tempt karma by cheating here and there. Anyway, since I'm going to be the one actually winning the prize, there's no real need to even raise that cash. If a catastrophe happens and somehow Stephen Hawking shows up and uses his big old science brain to beat me after I've gotten so good that only a freak of nature can manage it, then I'll make....the Call."
"The Call, oh, I have to write that down," Roy said, getting out his notebook. "You know, with each passing day, there's more and more here we can work with for this bio. I'm starting not to care that I got fired yesterday."
The spit take that Ben performed at the tail end of this sentence dowsed Harold, Curse, and Earl with generous eyefuls of orange juice. Though they had come to expect no better from him, their shock cost them precious microseconds and they were unable to maneuver out of the way of the deadly oncoming citrus. Jake clapped his hands and roared with delight at the sight of his father slowly wiping his glasses on his napkin while Harold and Curse took considerably longer to regain their sight and dignity.
"My bad," Ben said. "You got fired?" he asked Roy.
"Yeah," he said, "my editor told me I had to stay in town to cover the regional prep school indoor soccer semi-finals, and I told him I really needed to follow you for the book, so he said I could stay out in the desert, die there, and let my remains be eaten by vultures."
"That slime," Curse muttered. "When we get back there, we'll build some kind of contraption that'll pull all his limbs off in sequence but keep him alive somehow for at least a half hour or so."
"No, really, I don't mind," Roy said. "This book's gonna be great, and now I can get out of that stupid reporting game entirely and focus on the things I really want to do, aside from writing sports bios."
"What else did you have in mind?" Templeton asked him.
Roy looked at them all rather nervously. "Well, I know it might sound weird, but I sort of always thought I might be a good poet."
Ben heard this statement at the most unfortunate moment possible; he had just begun to drain the last of his orange juice when his brain forced him once again to suddenly jettison the offending liquid onto his compatriots with even more velocity than before, this time sending an arcing sunlit spray onto the defenseless foreheads of those he had already injured both physically and emotionally with his first salvo, though Curse caught only a slight bit of liquid on his left ear due to reflexes that had remained on red alert status since that initial offense. Harold and Earl wept inside for the dryness that had once been theirs but was now just a fond memory.
"I knew it wasn't a good idea to mention it," Roy said.
"I think it's a fine and noble pursuit," Templeton said, somewhat predictably.
"There's never been a sports writer who became a great poet," Earl said supportively. "You could be the first."
"I always wanted to capture the essence of a great championship game with a poem," Roy said. "Look at Casey at the Bat. It's immortal."
"Most depressing thing ever written," Ben said. "What kind of a hitter lets two strikes go by in that situation? He wasn't smart enough to jump on a first pitch fast ball?"
Their circular conversation was broken when Rick opened the driver's side door and stuck his head inside the vehicle. "We've got a slight problem, dudes," he said. "The battery's dead, but that's not all."
Leaving the last vestiges of their breakfast behind, they all filed out into the bright July sunshine shafting down onto the unsightly parking lot and gathered around the RV's gigantic open hood. Rick stuck his arm into the inner workings and pointed at something. "Check it out. I actually found this stuck between the flange capacitor and the C-fold."
Ben leaned in and squinted, then reached in to dislodge a large, shiny object. It was a socket wrench. He managed to release it from its death grip on a tiny bolt beneath one of the six Harris hinges (a startlingly high number of Harris hinges, to be sure).
"That's just the beginning," Rick said. "Peer between the chassis hooks and the key wipe. You won't believe your eyes."
Earl was closest to the mechanical intestines in question, so he got the best look of any of them, and poked his fingers into the jumbly darkness. He pulled out first a screwdriver, then a claw hammer, and then, to their disbelieving eyes, a half-full pack of cigarettes that had been lodged beside a lighter in the shape of an alligator.
"Whoever was working on this thing left about half their tool box in the engine," Rick said. "I also found a carpenter's level, an old battery tester, and about fifty pages of a repair manual to a 1987 Saab. Those were curled up inside the wiper fluid reservoir. But the capper is this." From his pocket he took out a tiny flashlight that he had also found inside the engine and affixed its feeble beam deep into the confused snarl of engine parts and abject darkness. The heads of the group craned, twisted, and bumped gently into one another. Curse lifted Jake up so he could get in on the gawking action.
"Is that..." Templeton began, not quite getting a good enough look below the vapor coils to make sure of what he believed he was witnessing.
"Yeah, it is," Rick said. "It's a pineapple."
"Look at the size of that thing," Curse said, whistling. "If you can ever get that out of there, we can eat for a week."
"The problem is, the little spines have pretty much completely scraped away the housing of the fusillator," Rick said in scary tones. "The sucker's toast. That's a nine hundred dollar repair before we can start the engine, if you can even find a replacement here in Wherever, Ohio."
"Oh, terrific," Ben said morosely. "Just what we need. There's no chance we can just pop into Wal-Mart and grab one?"
"Funny thing," Rick said, "I once replaced a fusillator in my father's speedboat with an electric can opener. Ran great for two whole hours. Then...." He trailed off. "Let's just say I don't live with my father anymore," he finished.
"Okay, okay, we gotta put our heads together," Ben said. "We can't leave the Millennium Falcon here to rot and just go on without it. It's like our Noah's Ark, or that hovercraft that carried the Partridge Family around. But at the same time, we can't afford to lose even a day. I'm due at this APBA guru's house that Fergus Hibbert clued me onto tomorrow at noon. It's absolutely the only time he agreed to see me."
"We're going to be cutting Las Vegas really close anyway," Harold noted. "You never think of Nevada being far away, but wow. It's a wonder why anybody even bothers."
They all fell silent, individually contemplating possible solutions. Rick didn't think it would be such a terrible idea for him to simply wander off toward the closest horizon and start selling hemp shoes for a living, but if he got to Vegas and was able to win the prize money, he could go back to school and finish his Indignant Forestry degree. Earl had a swift, horrifying mental image of himself living in the parking lot for the next twelve years, teaching Jake history and higher algebra inside Wal-Mart during their slowest business hours, using only the materials they could find on the store's shelves, and very slowly building up enough courage to call the boy's mother and tell her what had become of them.
Their futile huddle was interrupted by the approach of a man from the west. Ben heard footsteps clomping on the cement and he turned to see a tall, very bald, and very mean-looking gent walking towards them. The others became aware of him a couple of seconds later. The man's arms, emerging from a dirty white T-shirt, were the size of fence posts that had been soaked by rain and left out to expand and bust. He wore black jeans and scuffed steel-toed boots. Ben's hopes that this was merely parking lot security coming to give him the heave ho for dumping the ice from his cup of orange juice onto the tarmac dwindled quickly. The man stopped before them, surveying them one by one with eyes that had obviously punched many a wiseacre face in their day. His skin looked leathery, like a carpet with disciplinary problems.
"Hello there," Harold greeted him. "Nice day for, um....weather."
The intruding ruffian completely ignored him and strangely focused his gaze on Roy alone. Roy, eleven inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter, shrank under the man's lengthening shadow. When the man reached into his back pocket to draw something out, Ben's first thought was that if someone had to die on this trip, he'd always figured it would be Earl.
The man produced not a weapon but a thick wad of bills—fifties, it looked like. He reached forward suddenly, grabbed Roy's right hand, and yanked it upward, twisting it so that his palm was face up. Down came the bills, slapped onto Roy's pale flesh so hard it almost embedded the face of Ulysses S. Grant into it. Roy closed one eye, prepared for random street violence that never came.
"Take it," the man snarled at him in what was frankly a much higher-pitched voice than his physical image projected. It seemed a little like false advertising. "You won it. I hope it..." He searched for just the right words. "...Messes you up," he finished lamely, then gave them all a final disdainful once-over before turning and clomping off into the morning light. Whatever terror the brute had originally caused them dissipated completely when he mounted not a Harley Davidson but a very sensible, very affordable sky blue ten speed bicycle and pedaled east, making sure to use his hand signals when merging with traffic.
Roy just stood there, not quite as dumbfounded as they would have thought. On his face there was evidence of a secret knowledge of the situation he did not wish to impart.
"Okayyyyyyyyyy," Curse said, "go ahead and start explaining that one any old time."
"Look at all that money!" Jake said, actually pointing at it. "You could go into the Discovery Channel store and buy the biggest globe they have!"
Roy did indeed take a good look at the cash, and then, without even counting it, he turned to Ben and repeated the same act that his mysterious benefactor had performed on him, taking Ben's hand, turning his palm face up, and placing the cash directly onto it, with a little less force this time.
"You have to take this from me, Ben," Roy said. "I don't want any part of it. Let's find a mechanic, fix the engine, and get going."
"Oh no," Ben said, forcing the bills back on him, "if I take this, the cops will say I was in on the whole thing. Don't give anything to me, don't get your fingerprints on my vehicle, don't tell me the name of the deceased."
"It's not like that," Roy said. "It's....well, I...I can't tell you."
"You're among friends," Templeton said. "Surely a young man like you couldn't have gotten into too much trouble."
"Not...trouble," Roy said. "Something that....no, no, don't make me remember it!"
"Dude," Rick said. "It's obviously eating you up inside. You have to purge your blentha. Purge it right here in the parking lot."
"Yeah, that blentha's gotta go," Ben agreed.
"There's like, four thousand dollars there!" Jake said, having calculated the approximate thickness of the wad and using simple (for him) division.
"That's exactly how much I spent on mulch last year to fix my stump problem near the front walk," Harold said sadly.
"I can't talk about it," Roy said. "I knew it was a bad idea to come along on this trip...to leave my apartment where I was safe and take such a reckless chance....especially when APBA is involved...I....I....."
Outside, the white stuff that always accompanied a real Vermont northeaster came down hard and heavy, but no one crouched deep within the basement of the Dr. Curtis L. Sackler Humanities Building on the campus of Franklin and Murray University would be making any snow angels on this cruel night. Ten young men stood around a stolen card table set up beneath a single 25-watt light bulb, surrounded by the dank of decades. Silence hung in the air like so much expired veal.
The two competitors facing each other across the table had torn into each other for five straight hours now. On one side, Grog Streep, the campus's fiercest-looking senior, a communications major with a mean streak wide as the Dr. Curtis L. Sackler Memorial Walking Path, scowled and knocked back another domestic beer in just seconds. On the other side, Roy Skinla, nicknamed "The White Gherkin" for reasons of general cruelty, sat up as tall in his folding chair as his five foot seven inch frame would allow. He wasn't about to back down to this bully, oh no, not after what he had been through since dinnertime. He had methodically knocked off four of his classmates to get to the final round of this subterranean death match, and he could taste authentic victory for the first time in his life. Between the two men lay four thousand dollars in cash, absolutely all the money their parents had set aside for their miscellaneous daily purchases throughout graduate school—shampoo, laundry, the occasional candy bar, stuff like that. Now it was all riding on a single roll of the dice.
With the cool of a veteran gunslinger, Roy picked up his yellow dice shaker and let slip the dogs of war onto the card table. They clacked into each other once, twice, three times, then halted with the precision of a military drill team. There was a communal gasp around him as Grog Streep's head lowered with agonizing slowness.
"Goal," Roy whispered. "Goal."
As his classmates all looked at him with an awed hush, Roy stood up from his chair, his forehead gleaming with sweat, just like always, except now instead of the perspiration of a chronic glandular problem, it was the defiant moisture of a man who had climbed the highest mountain on campus.
"I know you're going to have difficulty getting through your internship with KTTB-45 without any spending money," he said to his slain enemy, "so I'm not going to take it now. I want you to keep it for five years, and think every day of what it must be like to be me, a true champion. Yes, Grog, think about it with every children's television show you have a hand in producing, and every night you lie awake, dreaming of what could have been. And five years from now, you'll pay up, every penny—or I'll do to you again what I did just now: make you wish you had never been born!"
There was a cheer from around him, and the next thing he knew, he had been lifted onto the shoulders of his comrades, who would go back to calling him The White Gherkin twenty-four hours from now and pretending they never knew him, but who for one moment looked upon Roy as the skinny, pasty-faced, dateless deity that he truly was.
"It was my darkest moment," Roy told the group, standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot and feeling ten times smaller than he did that night. "I never played APBA Hockey again, and I promised myself I'd never go near another sports board game. And then came that night at Harold's house."
"Hardcore, man," Rick whispered, impressed. "Wild stuff."
"I shouldn't even be around anyone who plays these games," Roy said. "I could become obsessed again."
"This is terrific!" Ben exclaimed. "Who needs to go see some supposed APBA strategy expert in Indiana when I have you to tell me all about it!"
"I'm not any good at the baseball game," Roy said. "I only had the hockey one, and it wasn't because of skill that I won that night. It was pure luck. I felt dirty then, and this money makes me feel dirty now. So take it, Ben. It makes sense, with the karma and everything. I can't keep the cash, but it's perfect for what you want to do." He put it one last time into Ben's hand, where it was starting to feel most welcome.
"If the whole thing's about destiny, Ben," Earl said, "this fits perfectly. A guy comes out of nowhere..."
"You make an interesting case," Ben said, kind of hoping everyone would just get back into the RV so he could spend some time alone with the money, and maybe give it a little kiss. "Yes, this money just landed on us naturally. And if it really spooks your brain to have it, Roy—"
"It does," Roy said. "I'm in recovery, and I can't profit from my addiction. Thank goodness I don't even really like baseball, or I'd probably be hounding all of you to play the game. Please, don't anyone even teach me the rules or show me the cards if you can help it. I'll just keep writing the book and hopefully I'll be all right."
"Rick," Ben said, his chest swelling with confidence, "take this money and call around for a mechanic who'll fix the vehicle by this afternoon. Grease his palms if you need to. But first, I think we could all use another round of pancakes, this time without little pieces of Styrofoam lodged in them. "
About this there was no real consensus, but Rick took the money anyway and began his tasks while the rest of them sunned themselves in the parking lot, tossing a Frisbee around and taking turns using the freaky shower on board. The summer day rose gloriously around them, and somewhere to the east, Grog Streep rode into work at WPLJ-13 in North Tiffin on his ten speed, where, as script supervisor on the Emmy award-winning Cap'n Candy Cane 'n' Friends, he was only occasionally haunted my memories of the night Roy Skinla had taken him down a few pegs by rolling so many lucky sixty-sixes it wasn't even funny.
15. Tea and Biscuits in the Room That Was Big
"Are you sure that's the right house?" Harold asked Ben for the third time in as many minutes.
The faces of the Independent APBA Collective of Metro Harrisburg stared out from every available window of the TRAVEL OPTION as the beast sat motionless beside a quiet curb in exurban Kokomo, Indiana. After seemingly endless hours of westerly driving, they had come to 1933 Long Arrow Lane, and had no valid reason to doubt that the address they'd zeroed in on was invalid. But it almost had to be. The house before them was a capitalistic behemoth, a four story white-bricked homage to wealth with a circular driveway, manicured hedges, and pillars, honest to God pillars, guarding the front steps. The front lawn was immaculately mown in a subtle swirl pattern, and a thick aura of intimidating cleanliness hung about the property. Ben expected to see men in white jumpsuits leap out at any moment and start scrubbing the eaves with toothbrushes.
"1933 Long Arrow Lane, that's what this definitely says," Ben said, again checking the bubble gum wrapper Fergus Hibbert had given him in Philadelphia. "It's the only house on the road anyway. It's got to be the right one."
"No gate or anything keeping us out," Earl noted. "Might as well just walk up and try the door, Ben."
Ben swallowed uneasily. Being in the presence of truly big money had always made him feel uncomfortable. In the early days of his playing career, he had contemplated blowing everything he made on a nice farmhouse in the country with four acres of slightly marshy land to roam around on, but he had chickened out on the tour the realtor gave him, made deeply queasy by the sheer floor area he would have to vacuum every couple of years or so. That misstep, combined with his one experience in a truly nice restaurant, an epic nightmare of multiple spoons, miniscule portions, and sauces that combined upwards of three different barely pronounceable ingredients, had secured his opinion of really rich people: like camels at the zoo, it was fun sometimes to pay a few bucks to peer at them in their cages, but then it was time to grab a stuffed panda at the gift shop and get the hell out of there.
"No one's going to bite you if you knock on the door, Ben," Templeton soothed him, choosing not to reveal to his friends just yet that his own house back in Harrisburg was actually a little bigger than this one. "He did agree to see you, didn't he?"
"Just in a five-word letter," Ben said. "Ah well, how obnoxious can he be if he's spending so much time playing a board game? If I'm not back in fifteen minutes, call in an air strike." He hopped out of the RV and crossed the lawn, conscious of every mark his feet made on the grass and imagining a federal judge throwing him into prison for defiling such perfection.
He expected the pushing of the doorbell to spur a cacophony of cathedral chimes and Gregorian chants, or at least "Lara's Theme," but it was just a normal doorbell, which disappointed him greatly. When the huge door opened, a shaggy-haired kid of about eighteen was standing there in torn jeans, cheap sneakers, and a T-shirt with Bob Seger on it. He rubbed his eyes as if just having awoken at noon really took a lot out of him.
"Yes?" he asked, looking past Ben at the RV, which he seemed to be somewhat impressed with.
"Fergus Hibbert gave me this address. I'm Ben Glinton, I'm here to talk to Jerzy Plenck. Are you his son?"
"Me? No. I'm his butler." The kid said this with no trace of humor. "He's been expecting you, I think. I'll holler at him that you're here. C'mon in."
The door opened wider and Ben stepped inside the flawlessly air conditioned foyer, in which hung large paintings by some of the lesser known Impressionist masters. Off to the left and right were well-decorated sitting rooms, and a spiral staircase leading up to God knows where. The butler started to mount it when down from secret heights came a very diminutive man in a black turtleneck sweater and short hair so white he would have been ignored for days in a bowl of rice.
"Hey, um, this Ben Glinton guy's here," said the butler as the small man moved past him.
"Thank you, Ousmus," said Jerzy Plenck in a modest, cultured voice as he descended. "Would you arrange for Mrs. Loiles to bring us tea in the recreation room, and then you may retire for the rest of the afternoon. Oh, and I left your wages in the greenhouse beside the rhododendrons."
"Rockin'," Ousmus replied, and shambled out of sight, yawning.
Plenck came forward and offered a tiny hand to Ben. The man was maybe five feet two inches tall and perfectly symmetrical, like a child's doll. He looked like he could be broken in half by sneezing on him. His bright blue eyes twinkled. "Hello, Mr. Glinton. Good to have you."
"Thanks," Ben said. "Nice spread you have here. Fergus didn't tell me you were, you know, loaded up the ying yang." He couldn't get over how perfectly white the man's hair was. He had to fight the urge to dye it for Easter.
"Yes, I do fairly well for myself," Plenck said, motioning politely for Ben to walk with him toward the shining hallway in front of them. "It's all money that could disappear quickly, of course, so I try not to become accustomed to any of it."
"What exactly do you do?" Ben said as they turned right and walked past a huge study crammed wall to wall with bookshelves. The books which packed them looked very old, very valuable, and definitely not fake.
"I do a bit of wagering," Plenck answered. "I advance money to certain parties based on my belief that certain outcomes in the sporting world are more likely to come to pass than others, and I am rewarded if my predictions are in fact valid."
Ben did a double take. "You gamble? You gamble on sports? And you've won enough dough to live here? What's your secret?"
"Oh, there are no secrets, Ben, not in this life," Plenck said from about a foot below eye level. "Simply what we can observe and put to use. Ten years ago, when I was nothing more than the chief operating officer of a large European defense contractor, I watched a professional sporting contest for the first time. A basketball match, in fact. I became more and more intrigued by the interplay between skill and chance I witnessed that night and on subsequent nights, until I finally retired to wager on these events, baseball in particular. It's a lovely game, more suited than any other to the pace at which I prefer to live my life."
"I guess it's a little less stressful to bet on stuff when you already own Boardwalk, Park Place, and Ventnor Avenue," Ben said.
"Indeed, it has been," Plenck said as they walked through a room containing nothing but a grand piano, four velvet chairs, and opulent examples of art from the Orphist school. "I don't particularly care for stress. I have very little contact with the outside world so that I can focus my energies on my amusements."
"Can't blame you," Ben said. "Kind of hard to believe a guy like you plays APBA, though."
"Oh, I enjoy a bit of further unwinding with tabletop pursuits," Plenck told him. They had emerged into another hallway and now they stopped for a moment beside a white door at the end of a plush green carpet. "I've found that there's not quite enough of America's favorite pastime to be found on the television during the winter months, and I was happy to find a way to re-create it in relative silence." He pushed the door open and gestured for Ben to enter first.
The huge room looked out on Planck's back lawn and the hedge maze that grew there. Sunlight poured in through a large picture window. In the center of this virtually barren and pristine enclosure was a large table with two chairs on opposite sides. Laid out on the table was APBA Baseball. But this set was....different.
Ben walked over to it and looked down in amazement. At first he didn't even believe his eyes, thinking that what he was seeing was just like that fake five dollar bill the owner of Skippy's Liquors had painted on the floor beside the cash register to fool people into bending down to swipe it, a work of craftsmanship remarkable enough to achieve a 48% success rate against the general public and a 71% success rate against Ben himself. But the thing on the table before him was...ohmygod, it was real.
The pleasant-looking cardboard baseball diamond that usually came with a new APBA Baseball game had been replaced by one made of mahogany. Some unknown but extremely talented artist had reproduced an aerial shot of Lippleby's Bangers & Mash Stadium in Green Bay in dozens of vivid colors, and the markers which stood in for base runners were not red plastic discs but highly precise metal figurines painted in the colors of that city's woeful franchise. So accurate, in fact, that the players even seemed to have facial expressions depicting effort and determination.
"Ohhhhhhhhhh," Ben murmured lustily.
"I possess depictions of all current and past professional stadiums," Plenck said casually. "And base runners representing all teams, naturally."
Ben's eyes were treated next to the sight of a play results booklet Plenck had had specially made in Vienna. The book itself, bound in leather, was propped up by an oak lectern. A team of scriveners, monks actually, had been hired to transcribe the play results by hand onto each high-gloss page in a rainbow of bold inks. The calligraphy was stunning. They had even been able to make a result of FOUL OUT, PO-C look sublimely romantic.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," Ben said again, feeling woozy.
The cards. For the love of Elvis, the cards. Plenck had been in the midst of conducting a game between the Maryland Riflesmiths and the Atlanta Clouts when Ben had arrived. Probably knowing, like all APBA competitors, that there was nothing that could replace the feeling of nice player cards in one's hand, Plenck had gone beyond the company's efforts and carved each one from....no, it couldn't be...
"Ivory," he told Ben. "Incredibly light because of the extreme thinness of each card. You can actually see light through them if you hold them up to the window. And if you turn them over, you'll notice that each features a full-color reproduction of the player's bubblegum card. That's where the real costs began to mount. I've only had the 1977 season set completed, but I have people working on others. Go ahead, pick one up."
"OHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," was the sound that for the third time emerged from Ben's mouth as he became as shell-shocked as any kid that ever took the tour of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. If Plenck had told him to lick one of the cards because it tasted like a snozzberry, he would have bought into it entirely.
"The dice...one's gold and one's silver," Ben said in a strangled, tiny voice, picking them up off the playing field and letting them drop into a hand-carved maple shaker shaped like a baseball glove.
"Worth a pretty penny, too," said Plenck. "Try my landing lawn."
Ben poured the dice out onto a flat, green, velvet-lined cushion fenced in by little planks colored to look like outfield fences. There was a small, delicate thumping sound as the dice hit paydirt, a sound sweeter than any song Ben had ever heard, except for maybe Running with the Devil.
"It's not velvet, actually," Plenck said. "That's real grass. It's quite a challenge to keep up, but I find that if I keep the lawn on the sill over there between games, it draws enough sunlight to both keep the grass alive and give it that wonderful summer aroma of a real field."
That did it. Game over. Ben passed the hell out.
When he awoke a minute later, Plenck was fanning him with his scoresheet. Ben didn't even want to look up from the floor at it for fear he might lose consciousness again. He got slowly to his feet, helped up by one of Plenck's small manicured hands. His one hundred and forty pounds didn't haul a lot of tonnage and Ben had to do most of the work of standing himself.
"Amazing, the effect this game has on people," Plenck observed. "The sight of the ultimate set had caused two of the three visitors to my estate this past year to have a similar reaction. I believe the game reaches our inner adolescent more powerfully than even a mother's cooking. Come, have a seat at the gaming table, Ben."
Ben did so, and Plenck sat across from him. Ben gazed down at the game set and tried to think of meaningless number cycles to keep himself from salivating.
"Luck, Ben," Plenck said. "It dictates so much of our lives. Where we are born, to whom, the people we encounter in our pursuits, the illnesses we suffer. And of course, one's success with APBA Baseball has much to do with luck."
"I know," Ben said. "This could be a problem. I really need to win that tournament I was talking about in my letter to you."
"An almost impossible task, if you continue to employ the managerial techniques you wrote about in your letter. I must say, I was most disturbed to hear about your lineup techniques and your woeful on-base percentage. I dare predict the competition will be over for you as soon as it begins—unless we study together, very hard."
"But I have to get going to Las Vegas," Ben said. "I was hoping you could maybe jot a few tips on an index card or something and I could keep it with me. Doesn't have to be made out of ivory. A normal index card should be fine."
"Oh, I'm afraid that won't work, Ben," said Plenck as the ancient Mrs. Loiles came into the room with tea and biscuits, just the thing to restore Ben's sense of masculinity after dropping like a brick to the floor in excitement over the components of a board game. The woman set a silver tray between them and shuffled out of the room, perhaps to go celebrate her two hundredth birthday.
"I haven't made any scientific observations about the game," Plenck explained as he poured the tea. "None that I could write down, at any rate. What I've done over the past three years is to get a strong feel for the secret interplay between the game's factors of chance and managerial acumen. I've learned the subtleties of the boards and I believe I would have a sizeable advantage over any opponent if given a team no worse than his. Quite sizeable, in fact. It has taken all my powers of observation to mentally track each game's hidden patterns instead of allowing myself to ride the wings of my imagination, so to speak, and become awed and over-stimulated by the excitement of the homeruns, the double plays, the strikeouts, the hitting streaks, the stunning endings."
"What are the chances of you being able to show me how to wallop the competition in time for the tournament if I stayed here and went through the whole Yoda treatment while the others drove on and I just caught a flight at the last second?"
"I'm afraid none," Plenck said. "For you to win given your skill level, I believe I would have to stick right by your side through every roll of the dice, counseling you as necessary."
"Oof," Ben said. "The problem is, I don't think we're gonna be allowed to have anyone coaching us."
"Did you not set up the tournament yourself?" Plenck asked, a small smile creeping onto his delicate face. "Is it not up to you to determine the rules of play?"
A light bulb switched on inside Ben's head, sputtered for a second, and then bathed his skill with a full forty, forty-five watts. "Yes!" Ben said through a mouthful of table wafer. "Yes, it's my show! Bench coaches will be allowed! But that means—"
"I would come with you on your journey," Plenck said. "Only by judging the ebb and flow of a particular game can I really deduce what sort of moves you will have to make, at precisely the right moments, to give yourself the best chance at victory. It is not unlike standing in a stilled forest waiting for deer to show themselves. A truly gifted hunter does not rely on fake urine and tree stands to draw his prey. He can merely sense when something is about to happen, and he acts accordingly."
"Fake urine, gotcha, good analogy," Ben asked. "But why would you want to leave Buckingham Freaking Palace to sleep on the floor of an RV with a bunch of deadbeats and no more than one Pulitzer Prize winner?" He was sure that it would be at this exact point that he would wake up from this wondrous dream, probably with the sound of the lawnmower outside the window merging cruelly into the sound of his cruddy alarm clock.
Plenck stood up, clasped his hands behind his back, and took a turn about the room, as they used to say in British novels that took place in houses exactly like this one. "Since I was a child, Ben," he said, "I have been accused by both friends and enemies alike of having been possessed of overwhelming luck. I was born to vastly wealthy parents who became only vastly wealthier when they kept winning the lottery. My company was blessed with absurd fortune when an incompetent and corrupt board of directors vanished in the Bermuda Triangle before they could run the operation into the ground. And the first twelve bets I placed on professional baseball were all freakish winners. They weren't even wagers based on research or even hunches; I laid thousands of dollars down on such gambits as predicting how many times players would spit during an inning and whether the ball girl could field a foul tap cleanly. It has done no small injury to my pride as a man to be called nothing more than a conjurer of providence. I long for a moment when I can engage in a pursuit founded on the luck of the dice, and somehow use nothing more than my intelligence to obviate their influence. I want to be able to help you win that tournament based on my observations of the game's tightrope walk between mental acumen and chance, and my ability to impart those enigmas to a willing student. Then, and only then, can I sleep easy at night, immune to the opinions of my contemporaries, knowing I accomplished something real and incontrovertible."
Ben stood up from his chair in tacit support of this great man's decision. "Then you will ride along with us to Vegas and there we will all triumph!" he announced. "Any chance you'd want to fund the rest of the prize money if everything else falls through?"
For the first time, the small man made a sound like a laugh. "Don't be absurd, Benjamin," he said. "I didn't make fifty million dollars in my life by throwing money around. Why don't you finish your chamomile while I pack a few things for the voyage."
16. Savage Brutes, Encountered by the Roadside, are Dispatched Before Injurious Blows to the Self-Esteem are Suffered
So then it was nine of them headed across the country in an RV that seemed more cramped with each passing mile, though no one really minded so terribly. Each man aboard the ship had his own dealings to attend to, and between all the activity and the sightseeing, time passed quickly. By Wednesday they were in Missouri, admiring the open prairies and eating at roadside diners never mentioned in any AAA guides, or any phone books for that matter. Jerzy Plenck had actually brought along his own specially prepared macrobiotic meals, packed inside a black leather suitcase and consisting mostly of kelp fingers and collapsible whey, but he enjoyed free ice water with lemon when the rest of the Collective decided to hit such places as Aunt Grammy's Calorie Sack in Sikeston and Four Losers Subs and Fried Chicken in Belleville (where a twelve inch meatball hoagie came with a side of dry Raisin Bran). Like Mr. Rogers, Plenck wore the same thing pretty much all the time, changing at night into silk pajamas which were basically identical to his daytime clothing before he good-naturedly stretched out on the floor, where he always slept when he was at home anyway.
He and Ben played a great deal of APBA as the miles passed, with Plenck often pausing in the middle of games to lecture Ben, and anyone else who happened to be interested, on the mystical role of the dice and the subtle tendencies of the playing boards. The fellas lapped it all up, though Ben wasn't sure he needed all this arcane information, especially the long tangents about mathematical probability and why a tabletop manager should always be conservative on the base paths with two outs and a runner on second—or was it that he should be extra aggressive? Ben, already pestered by an inability to learn a new phone number without forgetting the name of a close relative, just couldn't keep it all straight. One thing became certain, though: Plenck's tiny Polish head was absolutely teeming with a talent for knowing when to make the best moves to secure victory. He beat Ben eleven times in a row at one point using a team of lesser strength, something he simply shouldn't have been able to do. At critical junctures during the games, Plenck would stop to examine the scoresheet in great detail, and then pore over the player ratings for minutes on end before announcing a strategic decision—or holding off on one—that inevitably won the game. None of them had ever seen anything like it. They were all dying to have him pick baseball games for them so they could cash in like mad, but he told them he was currently on sabbatical from gambling, wishing to focus his energies entirely on helping Ben win the upcoming tournament. In his few off hours from explaining to Ben why a botched double play wasn't necessarily reason to forfeit a game in disgust, or why it wasn't such a good idea to send a player to third on a sac fly simply out of spite, he read the novels of Thomas Mann and listened to the choral music of Australian pygmies.
Meanwhile, Jake was working on a summer extra credit project assigned to him by one of his soon-to-be professors at Hofstra. When he wasn't playing APBA or gazing at the constantly fascinating sights out the window, he was collecting common field spiders for an intensive study on whether they seemed to want something better from life. The extent of this pursuit was made fully known to his fellow travelers only in the middle of the night when Curse suddenly jumped up from his spot on the floor, practically dove out of the RV, and ran in his shorts down a newly paved highway outside Carthage, yelling that his brain was being eaten. One of Jake's specimens had gotten out of its tiny plastic case and done a little moonlight hiking inside Curse's nose. Unfortunately, Curse became so hysterical that he inhaled the spider entirely, a realization so unpleasant that he felt only by striking himself over the head a dozen times with Jerzy Plenck's ceramic teapot could he distract himself from the desire to seek out the nearest vacant electric chair and sizzle himself off into the next life.
Two books were being written during this time. Templeton jotted down page upon page of descriptions of the minutiae of everything they passed, having decided that his observations during this week's trip would comprise chapter one of a ten chapter prologue of a book-length essay that would run at least 1500 pages. Roy continued to press on with Ben's biography. Reading all the old scouting reports on Ben, which the Kentucky Cannons had only been too happy to dump on him, he discovered that Ben's entire career had essentially begun with a spontaneous wager between two scouts, one of whom bet the other that "the trout-looking left fielder with the goofy walk" would be the first to slip on an especially deceptive patch of ice lingering outside the Montreal Edmontons' winter practice facility—a gym attached to a senior citizens center. When Ben went down on his butt "flailing his arms like a retarded penguin trying to fly," according to the notes, the outcome of the bet was that Ben's contract was fobbed off on a British team, where he suddenly played surprisingly well, beginning to make his way slowly to the big leagues. Roy debated for a while whether or not to include this story in the biography and then went ahead and did it, trying to be as honest as possible, though in the end he did replace the words "retarded penguin" with "challenged seabird." The only part of the story Ben disputed was the physical dimensions of the gym.
Harold tried to improve himself by using a stop at a shopping mall to pick up some classics of western literature which Templeton had recommended, but the first part of Dracula scared him so badly that he had to resort to imagining all the characters as players on his old Cannons team to get through the rest of it. Only by picturing the Count being brushed back by a high inside fastball as Renfield broke for second base, only to be yelled back by the first base coach (Mina Harker), could he go on. He stopped halfway through the scene where Dracula preys on poor Lucy Westenra to imagine the Prince of Darkness hauling ass around third on a hard single to right only to have Doctor Van Helsing reach out and yank him down to the turf by his cape, instigating a bench-clearing brawl. In the end, Harold missed out on much of the sense of foreboding that Bram Stoker had created, but at least he finished a real novel for the first time since college. In his breaks from reading, he took the wheel of the TRAVEL OPTION so Rick could compose more harmonica songs for a future album about mercury poisoning in Atlantic cod.
Once, and only once, Ben consented to give an impromptu performance on the clarinet with which he had taught his students back in the day, and which he'd brought along to pawn at some point. He played Chopin's Sonata in B Flat Minor. Three of the men wept openly at his evocative, heartrending performance. Their names shall never be revealed.
On Thursday, the RV pulled up in front of a laundromat so everyone could wash their clothes. Jerzy Plenck was fascinated both with the public cleaning process and the atmosphere inside Mr. Shirtpantashorts, where locals from the town gathered with a real sense of community to be hypnotized by whatever soap opera was showing on the black-and-white TV set bolted to the wall. Because the change machine was broken, Earl and Jake went on a mile hike down the road to the closest bank, soaking up the hot sun. While everyone waited for their return, they shot a little pool in a dungeon-like and barely air-conditioned bar next door called T. C. McCrudd's. Plenck hadn't played since he was in his twenties, so naturally he nearly ran the table the very first time he broke and went on to demolish everyone, never changing his bemused, apologetic expression.
Ben collapsed onto a bar stool beside Curse as they waited their turns to be beaten again. "What are you listening to?" he asked Curse, who had a pair of earphones jammed into his head.
Curse removed one of the earpieces. "Death metal," he said. "A band called The Punched and the Slapped. Good stuff."
"Don't know them. Hey, I forgot to ask you, what did your wife say about you coming out here with us? You didn't mention her in that last Christmas card."
Curse pulled the other earphone out of his head and sipped his beer. "Aw, that marriage is pretty much over. Me going on this trip was the last straw for her."
"Whoops," Ben said. "Sorry."
Curse just shook his head. "Doesn't matter. You remember what I'm like to be around. Didn't figure it'd last. Didn't figure it'd go up in flames so quick though. Turns out, people I know were taking bets on it behind my back. Real nice." He stared out the only clean window in the place and adjusted the brim of his ball cap.
"Women," Ben said, grimacing. "Always walking around, doing things. They just don't get...stuff."
"Yup," Curse agreed. "Man, you said it. Now I just want one thing, and that's to win that tournament in Vegas."
"I didn't think you'd care so much about something like that."
"Everybody wants some kind of championship ring in life," Curse told him. "Doesn't have to be anything grand. Just something you were able to win. I win this thing, I'll bet you I won't even think about baseball anymore. It was my father who wanted me to play, anyway. I wanted to work construction. Build stuff. That's what I'm doing as soon as we get back east. No more radio work for the Sky Turks. What do I really know about the game anyway?"
"Oh, but no one's as good as you when it comes to describing a batter getting plunked by a pitch," Ben said. "Last year when Dan Sonoda took that slider right in the elbow and charged the mound and you talked about his nostrils flaring and little bits of spit coming out of his mouth when he tripped on the rosin bag? That was poetry."
Curse thought about it. "Yeah, that was pretty good," he agreed. "I got nice letters about that one."
Earl and Jake Peavey came into the pool hall at that moment, drenched from head to toe in sweat. Earl's bald head was dizzyingly shiny and Jake had lost about four pounds, roughly half his body weight. "We got quarters," Earl announced, panting. "But there's a ton of soap suds spilling out over the sidewalk outside and the police roped the whole place off. I think one of the machines blew up!"
"Wait a second," Ben said, rising from his stool, "Roy stayed over there to watch the end of Cops!"
The Roy in question appeared in the doorway a second later, feeling his way into the pool hall on shaky legs. Clinging to the left side of his ashen face was a big puffy balloon of white suds which had begun to slide silently down his cheek like an exhausted climber who just couldn't hang on to a crag on Mount Sinai one moment longer. His legs were be-sudsed from the waist down.
"Thought one more pair of boxers could fit..." he began, but couldn't go on, leaning on one of the pool tables for support.
"Oh my God, let's get out of here before they make us pay for that!" Ben said, hurriedly tossing a few dollar bills on the bar. "I've got a bad history with small claims courts in this state!" He made a mad dash for the door and everyone followed.
"Is the Midwest like this all the time, because if it is, I'm living here when I grow up," Jake announced as they piled out. The suds made a bold move on them out on the sidewalk, but to no avail.
The trekkers encountered infamy and controversy on Friday morning.
It happened in the middle of a most atypical game between Ben and Jerzy Plenck. Through an almost legendary streak of opportune dice rolls, Ben had leapt ahead big and stayed ahead big into the seventh inning. Managing the woeful Alberta Whippets of the defunct Seniors League of Western Canada, Plenck had to go through five pitchers just to hang on for dear life, never trailing by less than six runs. Ben was certain that his lunch today would possess the sweet lemony aftertaste of his first victory against Plenck in the last seven tries. He was tired of nodding knowingly at all of Plenck's managerial advice, most of which bent his cerebellum beyond repair. He was getting to the point where just beating this insanely polite and pleasant little finger puppet of a man would make the whole crazy trip worthwhile.
"Strikeout!" Ben blurted as another one of Plenck's batters went down haplessly with runners on the corners. "The tide is turnin', pal! The tide is turnin'! I'm ready for the big time!" Beside him, Harold slapped him on the back. Curse, taking a nap just a few feet away, opened one eye and closed it again, certain he must be dreaming. There was no way he could be inside a decrepit RV with Ben Glinton as a billboard hawking discounted potatoes flashed by on the highway. The scene made no sense whatsoever.
Plenck calmly collected his dice and put them back into his shaker. "Indeed, the sun is shining brightly on your hopes today, Ben," he said. "I must make a brief pinch hitting maneuver. Excuse me just a moment while I locate a suitable candidate for the task."
He sorted through his player cards and Ben suddenly found himself getting nervous. Almost anytime Plenck stopped the proceedings to make a move, the course of the game flip-flopped dramatically.
"Maybe I'll...maybe I'll just bring in my closer," Ben said, fixing his gaze on Plenck and looking for the slightest crack in that poker-faced exterior. There was none. There was never a crack. The man was like a stainless steel frying pan with arms.
"Regardless of whom you choose to bring in, I think I shall send the estimable Mr. Rodney Lootenbake to the plate," Plenck said, and Ben penciled him onto the scoresheet with a shaky right hand. Rodney Lootenbake? Rodney Lootenbake? Who the hell was Rodney Lootenbake?
Rodney Lootenbake homered to right.
"Ah, perfect," Plenck said mildly, pushing his plastic discs around the base paths, a simple act he never seemed to stop enjoying.
"Okay, 9-6," Ben said. "9-6. Two outs though, good luck."
Plenck's next batter reached base on an error thanks to the infield's iffy defense, which Ben should have fixed an inning ago. Plenck then stole second on the catcher's weak arm—a catcher Ben had stuck with because he had been foolishly seduced by the look of his power numbers. He refused to issue an intentional walk to someone named Billy Cadaco in order to get Plenck's weakest hitter up to the plate, and a quick single brought the runner home.
His stomach beginning to churn, Ben brought in a new pitcher. Plenck singled again and decided not to send his very fast runner to third for reasons that just didn't make any sense in Ben's cluttered mind.
"Why aren't you sending him? Why aren't you sending him?" Ben asked, sweating.
"Listen to the dice," Plenck counseled. "Listen to the dice, Ben, and they will tell you what to do. I've told you many times."
"But they're stupid!" Ben protested. "They have no idea what the hell's going on! They're made out of plastic!"
"Don't they?" Plenck wondered. He rolled again and his next batter knocked a triple into the left field corner.
"Jiminy jumping beans," Harold said. "Wipeout. Tie game."
"It's almost supernatural," Earl said. "Jake, put down Death in Venice and take a look at what's going on here."
"I can't take it anymore!" Ben said. "There is no way this bunch of Canadian losers can beat me! They finished last in a seventy-six team league!"
"I believe you are correct, Ben," Plenck said softly. "I sense that my fortune has expired for the time being. The gods have been too favorable in too brief a time window, I fear. Perhaps they'll return to my side in extra innings." He brought his next batter to the top of his lineup stack and rolled the dice.
"Oh my...I was wrong," Plenck said 2.6 seconds later. "Another homerun."
Ben pitched forward and his head clonked on the surface of the table, rattling his Hooters mug. Harold patted his shoulder gently. When Ben lifted his head again, plastic discs were stuck to his forehead and right cheek.
They were jettisoned off violently when the RV suddenly skidded to a halt. Curse rolled off his shelf and onto the floor with a heavy thump. Jake grabbed onto his father's legs for dear life. Roy had been on his cell phone trying to secretly call the First Catholic Church of Altoona in an attempt to get to the bottom of a crazy but disturbingly convincing rumor that Ben had once been deeply involved in the attempted exorcism of a chicken, and the phone flew out of Roy's hand and hit Ben in the gums.
"We're okay, we're okay!" Templeton called back to the group from the driver's seat, having taken over for a few hours so Rick could get some more sleep. Templeton had been having the time of his life behind the wheel from west Missouri into Kansas, besotted with middle-aged daydreams of buying his own RV, changing his name to Frederick A. Herschler, and never returning to Pennsylvania. Now he threw The Many-Wheeled Creature Which Obeyed Only the Wind into park and killed the engine while everyone gathered themselves.
"What happened?" Roy asked, rushing over to peer out the windshield.
"These people in front of us stopped a little short and I had to bring us down fast," Templeton said. "It took about a hundred yards for us to actually stop. Sort of a worrying testament to the brakes."
"Oh," said Ben, climbing to his feet, "I should have told you that the dealer warned me never to push on them too soft or too hard, or to use them too much before ten a.m."
The group filed out of the vehicle to see if the one they were following sustained any damage when the RV had tapped its fender ever so lightly. It happened to be another motor home, a sleeker, cleaner, more expensive product than Ben's, and this one had valid license plates. Four or five guys had gotten out of it and now crowded around the fender for a casual inspection. Nothing seemed to be out of whack.
"Sorry about that," Templeton said to the strangers. "Hope I didn't scare you too badly."
"Oh, that's okay," said a short man of about forty. "We had to stop to avoid hitting a prairie dog. Not surprising we almost had a bit of a smash-up."
"How funny," Earl said. "Nothing but guys on board for you too, eh?"
"That's right," said a red-headed fellow in a leather jacket. "Just a bunch of dudes hitting the open road. Do you by any chance know if we're still headed more or less toward Sublette?"
"You'll have to go back a mile and take a left at that rotting bathtub someone left in the road," Templeton told them.
"Much appreciated," said the short man. "Say, it looks like your windshield's hit more than a few bugs along your trip. All out of washer fluid?"
"Yeah, we are," Ben said before Rick could volunteer the information that the reservoir was quite full, but with fluid so old it had actually turned into a minty gel.
"We'll be happy to squeegee it for you," a guy in his twenties offered, and turned to head back into the RV to get the needed supplies.
"That's really neighborly of you," Harold said. "Where are you fellas headed, anyway?"
"Strat-O-Matic Baseball tournament in San Jose," the redhead said. "How about yourself?"
"How serendipitous," Jerzy Plenck said. "We happen to be traveling toward a self-created tournament in which the game of APBA will be the featured catalyst."
A heavy silence fell over the dusty intersection. The man who had been heading into the vehicle to grab a squeegee stopped in his tracks and turned slowly, as if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had asked him to kindly put his hands up in the air. The others in his party seemed to step closer together in unconscious solidarity.
"APBA, huh?" the oldest of them asked rhetorically, rubbing his hairless chin. There was a definite twinge of sarcasm in his voice.
"That's right," Earl Peavey said, stepping forward, not liking the sound of the man's tone. Jake followed suit.
"Terrific," Shorty said with disdain. "I guess, ah, you come from a place where Strat-O-Matic can't be easily bought? One of the Benelux countries, maybe, or Micronesia?"
"Oh, we've all had our chances to buy that particular game," Earl said, taking off his glasses. "I guess we were just too busy admiring all of APBA's far more attractive and well-designed components."
A murmur went through the other group, and the APBA Collective closed ranks behind Earl in response to it. Red put his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket and tongued the inside of his cheek.
"Yeah, APBA sure has nice...parts," he said with dripping derision. "I hear they're a nice distraction from Strat-O-Matic's superior statistical accuracy."
Rick's jaw dropped. He had heard some foul, foul things spoken in his twenty-six years on Mother Earth, but these guys were shooting flaming arrows.
"Obviously you're not aware of what you're saying," Earl responded, trying to swell up his chest inside his brown J.C. Penney sweater vest. "That's okay; you must be really tired from throwing around that twenty-sided die all day." Behind him, Jake and Rick giggled, knowing Earl had scored a direct hit that must have shredded the strangers' very souls.
Red stuck a piece of sugarless gum in his mouth and began to chew it very, very slowly as his eyes narrowed to little slits. "Not as tired as I am from sorting through the cards of every player who had any sort of measurable playing time during any given year," he said, his voice low and guttural. The men on his side seconded his opinion with grunts in the affirmative.
"Now, gentlemen, isn't this a bit silly?" Jerzy Plenck asked. "Coming to loggerheads over the pros and cons of pursuits so inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe? Let's not squander this opportunity to forge new friendshi—"
"How do you keep all those player cards together, by the way?" Earl asked. "Oh, did you say 'With sad little rubber bands instead of tasteful envelopes and only after spending half my youth perforating them from big bulky sheets?' What a shame. By the way, make sure you keep an eye on the side of the road as you drive for some interesting rain-out results, because, heh, because they sure as heck aren't included with your game."
"That's got to hurt," Curse whispered admiringly, seeing Earl in a whole new light.
"Included in our game is the biggest fan base in all of tabletop sports, Mr. I'm-So-Cool-Just-Because-I-Can-See-A-Player's-City-of-Birth-on-His-Card," Red spat. "You all are nothing but a bunch of chart-flippers!"
"Charts filled with play descriptions a little more vivid than a bunch of acronyms and hyphens!" Earl shouted, somewhat erroneously, but everyone more or less got the point.
"Yeah, that's right, Dad!" Jake said, bonding with his father more in the past twelve seconds than in their entire decade of watching Nova together.
"We just love your lonnnnnng, flaaaaat boxes," Rick chimed in. "Hope you have room for them in the back of your closet, where they'll all wind up!"
"If you're all such hot stuff," Red challenged them, "how come you're not at the actual APBA convention? What's the matter, did you get too bogged down having to laboriously add up the individual fielding ratings of your lineup to determine the defense's overall strength? Ha!"
Earl started to respond to this, almost getting a whole word out of his mouth, but then stopped. His attention shifted to Ben, who seemed completely unaware that the argument had ground to a sudden halt. His eyes were a-sparkle with excitement and he motioned with his head to Earl to let fly another entertaining insult.
"APBA convention?" Harold said, frowning. "The annual APBA convention is this weekend?"
"Of course, you ninnies," said the short man. "Your goofy-named game has the spotlight all to itself for a few lousy days, and you're gonna miss it. Good work!"
"Ben, why did you schedule our tournament on the same weekend as the convention?" Templeton asked. "All the most serious players will already be obligated to that and not some last-minute event."
"I didn't know there was such a thing as an APBA convention," Ben said, really disappointed that the delightful shouting match had to come to an end because of such trifling little details. "If it's so huge, why didn't any of you guys know about it?"
"We told you at that first meeting in your apartment, Ben, none of us are hardcore fanatics," Earl said. "We just like to play a whole heck of a lot."
"I wonder what this is gonna do to attendance," Curse wondered aloud.
"What a bunch of rubes," said Red, shaking his head sadly. "Come on, guys, let's get rolling before they try to sell us their old Statis Pro games."
Earl gasped. "You could do a heck of a lot worse than to simulate all the major sports using Statis Pro!" he shouted, shaking a fist. "Go back to Glen Head, you losers!"
Someone in the Strat-O-Matic group yelled something back about the pathetic lack of bold, sharp edges to APBA's player cards and in seconds they were all back aboard their RV and pulling quickly away from the intersection, leaving the Collective standing in the sun. When their pulses got back to normal after the bloody encounter, they headed back into their own craft and Ben started to dig out some cold cuts from the cooler he'd brought, trying to distract them all with the promise of lunch.
"Don't worry about a thing," Ben told them. "I checked my e-mail at the library in Neodesha while you guys were trying to fix our taillights. There's been plenty of response to the tournament. No TV stations are committed yet, but at least six players are confirmed. Curse, I may have promised everyone that you'd give them three or four free pitching lessons and a personal invitation to that cool little cabin in the Shenandoahs you've been showing us pictures of, and we may want to start thinking of how we're going to fit a water slide into the conference center. But your faith in me and in every single aspect of this trip will, as I have always maintained, be completely rewarded. Now, for lunch we have meatloaf sandwiches that to me still smell perfectly fine. Jake, come here and smell these and tell me there's anything so terribly wrong with them, come on, I dare you."
17. The Designer of 4th & 19 Football Airs a Long-Harbored Grievance
By Friday afternoon, they were all getting just a wee bit sick of each other as cabin fever reared its ugly head. Ben had kept his promise not to refer to Harold as Turkey Boat anymore, but had fallen into the habit of calling him "Grassy Pete" for no reason whatsoever. Curse had grown tired of Rick's constant admonitions to recycle, to buy a hybrid car, and to learn to make his own toothpaste. Templeton often composed lengthy passages of future works of fiction in his sleep, mumbling the words while he kept a tape recorder running in order to transcribe them when he awoke. Sometimes the compositions had some literary value, but just as often, Templeton's helpless sleep-self lapsed into inventing the weakly plotted tale of a sixteenth century female pirate named Eleanor Scantyclad, whose erotic adventures on the Galapagos Islands threatened Jake Peavey's innocence somewhat. Earl, in charge of the News of the Zany section of his company newsletter back at work, had taken to proofreading the messy chapters Roy had drafted for Ben's biography, and Roy didn't especially care for the way Earl kept criticizing his handwriting. Earl couldn't help it; as a child his parents had stressed the vital importance of good penmanship to the point where his failed cursive Qs were sent to the local newspaper in an attempt to shame him. Meanwhile, everyone was more or less baffled by Jerzy Plenck and his odd habits. His meditation hour always had to take place outdoors, so they had to pull over just after dawn and just before sunset so he could sit atop a picnic table and repeatedly nod with increasing head speed until he suddenly stopped and appeared to sleep with his eyes open for exactly fifty-six minutes. Grackles landed on his shoulders and perched there during these sessions. Afterwards, Jerzy would suggest they all drink weak chai with him while he told them some Chinese fable about blacksmiths or something. Meanwhile, it remained only mildly amusing to watch him clobber Ben at APBA, sometimes taking advantage of Ben's distressing managerial predictability, other times staring at the dice intently and almost able to predict from looking at the box score what numbers would come up on them next. He called this process "divining the exo-rhythms of the F range." Whatever he called it, Ben seemed to be getting worse rather than better, despite his own insistence that he felt on the verge of a breakthrough. He spoke of this alleged breakthrough with slightly less conviction than Paul McCartney telling Ringo Starr that they couldn't have done it without him.
Then there was the TRAVEL OPTION. As of Thursday night, the list of activities they could no longer perform lest the doleful creature suffer mechanical collapse and strand them in rural Utah included: showering, using two of the three electrical outlets, changing lanes too suddenly, filling the tank with gas without letting it sit for a few minutes about halfway through, rolling down the driver's side window, adjusting the driver's side mirror, changing the presets on the radio (what was left of it after four of the buttons had fallen off going around a curve in the city of Beaver), tapping on the windows, and yielding to pedestrians. They each had their own ideas as to what should become of the ship after the Vegas tournament, since it was completely clear that it would never make it back across the country and was basically unsellable. They took a secret vote on everybody's suggestions. In last place came Jerzy Plenck's idea to donate the RV to the Nevada Arts Commission as possible gallery space for promising young artists working in ceramics and beadwork. Everyone else voted to burn it in a field. Exactly what kind of field varied from person to person, but yeah, that was what was going to happen.
Dusk on Friday saw the diminishment of the ranks of the Independent APBA Collective of Metro Harrisburg by one.
For about two hours, they had all been scanning the passing landscape for a spot where Plenck could sit on top of something and meditate as he faced northwest, but the land had been barren of any objects remotely resembling a perch for this purpose. Instead, against the dramatic backdrop of the La Sal Mountains, Utah had revealed to them a shadowy desert wonderland of gentle rolling hills and deceptively exotic flora. The sun hanging low over the horizon threw it all into breathtakingly beautiful relief. They turned the radio off and only the sound of the engine complemented the rhapsodic silence of the countryside. No cars even went past them anymore, telling them that 1) out here in the land where God's creation was still not yet finished, nature still wielded benign dominance, and 2) they were kind of lost. They chose to ignore this second fact and Jake started to snap pictures of the approaching sunset which he would upload to his web site if they ever saw a computer again.
"Wow," Jake said, working his digital camera like a pro, "we never see anything like this in Harrisburg."
"Makes the whole trip worthwhile, pretty much," Curse said, gazing at the horizon's colorful palette.
"Truly awe-inspiring," Templeton said, feeling another chapter of his book drop into place.
"Try not to gather too much on one side of the vehicle," Ben said, "or the struts could cave in again."
Finally they saw a stump. It would have to do for Plenck. It sat in the middle of yet another infinite stretch of hardpan near another meaningless milepost. They pulled over, got out of the RV, and took a few steps off the shoulder, feeling the cool wind ruffle their hair and clothes, smelling the untainted air that promised nothing but health and tranquility. The road disappeared both ways into the distance. A transcendent dark blue glow had settled over the earth. Many miles away, the La Sals crouched like a gathering of stoic judges, great blocks of ancient darkness, immobile, daunting.
"This will do nicely," Plenck said with a respectful lack of volume.
"Hey, why isn't Rick coming out?" Jake asked, pointing back at the RV.
Rick was staring through the windshield, hypnotized, his mouth hanging open. After a couple of seconds, he managed to slide off the driver's seat and exit the vehicle slowly, never taking his eyes off the mountains, as if the sights before him were displayed on an old battery-operated TV and he was afraid that any sudden movement would irreparably jostle the antenna and lose the image. He took a few shaky steps forward, not quite able yet to make his mouth close.
"Nice, huh?" Roy asked him, a little freaked out by Rick's stupor.
"It's the dream," Rick said, ignoring him. He turned his head left and right, taking in every little detail of the roadside view. "The dream."
"To what do you refer?" Plenck asked politely.
"All my life, I've had this recurring dream," Rick told them, his knees weak. "It's this exact setting, to the last detail."
"Hmmm, not a whole lot of detail," Ben said. "Just a whole lot of nothing in every direction, pretty much."
"No, no, you're wrong," Rick said, leaving them and walking in a wide circle. "Everything's the same, including the stump there. And look, see that power grid out there? You can just barely see it. I've dreamed about that, too." They looked. Indeed, a row of silvery towers crouched at the very far reaches of their vision, touched by orange sunlight, beautiful somehow, appearing almost as natural as any of the other wonders around them.
"I used to draw this place when I was a kid, without ever having even seen it," Rick told them. "I knew I had to make it here before I died."
"Well, you've done it, and you probably have about fifty years to spare," Curse congratulated him. "Good job, yo."
Rick closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. The landscape had not disappeared. "All my life," he said, "I've wanted to find a place of total tranquility where I could start all over again. A place away from the things of man, where nothing had been ruined."
"Start all over again?" Harold asked. "What do you mean?"
"Just that," Rick said, turning the face them. "To just walk off and forget everything, and become one with the earth, reborn, naked."
"Naked, yes," Ben said. "You just mean spiritually, right?"
"Um....surrrre," Rick said, eyes shifting from side to side. "But this is the place, I know it. It's the first time I've ever been west of Chicago. Maybe the time is now."
"You're not really serious, are you?" Earl asked. "You mean you really want to..."
"Head for the mountains with just my soul in my hand," Rick said bravely. "And the stars above for nourishment."
"Oh, please," Ben said. "There's scorpions out here, man. They'll pick your bones clean."
"I want to be really brave just once," Rick said. "I want to put what I preach into practice. I want to blend my blethna with my ja."
"Easier said than done, young man," Plenck advised. "But I fully support your decision."
"No one's going anywhere," Ben said. "We have a tournament to get to. You shouldn't be making any major decisions until we see what kind of buffets we're in for in Vegas."
"Sorry, Ben," Rick said. "The moment is just too perfect. Something's speaking to me from beyond. I must walk on."
"But why not take it to the next level and find someplace really remote, like the Outback or something?" Harold asked, fascinated.
"Yeah, good luck affording that plane ticket," Rick said. "This will do just fine. So...I guess this is goodbye, dudes. Thanks for everything."
"What's gonna happen to you?" Jake asked, rather frightened.
"I'll be okay, Jake," Rick told him. "I'll just merge with the wild for a time, and then I suppose I'll come out of it and live like anybody else. But it'll be a new me. A wiser me. A cleansed me."
"Like when I tried to become a switch-hitter in '97," Ben said, nodding, finally beginning to understand.
"I guess," Rick said.
"You don't want to take your stuff?" Roy asked. "Your harmonica? Your copy of High Times that Dick Van Dyke signed?"
"Absolutely nothing," Rick said, gazing at the mountains, feeling his spirit becoming lighter and lighter.
"But you'll go insane out here with nothing to do but astral project," Ben said. "Take something."
Rick considered this viewpoint. "I suppose if..." he began, then motioned for Jake to come over to him. He whispered something into the kid's ear, and Jake disappeared into the RV for a minute. When he emerged, he was holding Rick's APBA Baseball set. He gave it to the crazy adventurer and retreated again respectfully. The group had organically created a little symbolic circle around Rick, and holding his game, he turned to the south and began to walk, taking easy, confident steps across the scrubland, becoming a silhouette in no time at all. He turned to wave before he got too small in their vision, and everyone waved back.
"Now there goes a true hero," Jerzy Plenck said.
"He was already talking a half hour ago about how he was a little hungry," Earl said. "Where's he going to eat?"
"I think he said the stars were gonna feed him," Jake said, continuing to wave after all the others had stopped.
"I can't believe he's choosing the wild over Las Vegas," Ben mused, shaking his head. "There's no spiritual cleansing quite like losing a hundred bucks on a single spin at the nickel slots. I'll never understand the tree-huggers."
Jerzy Plenck decided to forgo his meditation time out of respect for the moment. It was a good ten minutes before the group could bring themselves to get back into the RV. In Ben's biography, Roy would describe the scene of Rick's fearless departure like this:
Just as the phoenix of legend rose exultant from the ashes, so too did Richard Leahy Nippthorpe rise from the wreckage of modern day civilization to reclaim his true identity as a man untainted by society's expectations of what comprises an employable individual. His largeness was never bigger than when he abandoned Ben's vehicle to chart his own sacred path beyond the tree stump that had been the reason for their movement's cessation. Did some part of Ben's heart reach a five-fingered hand out to join him, sensing that the trip to the west could not possibly end as well as he was hoping, given his seeming inability to make his intelligence grow enough to compete in his penultimate tournament? No one would ever know, just as no one would ever know what became of Rick after he became a part of the late summer sunset which he loved more than even the song of the hummingbird, or the song of the blue jay, or the song of the sparrow, or the song of the seagull, or the song of the robin, or the song of the majestic bald eagle that perhaps swooped down from the sky to guide his feet as they carried him into the hazy future.
The book's editor would later excise this entire passage except for the part about the stump. But Roy felt he had at least captured for himself the mood of the moment. None of them realized that as the RV pulled back onto the road and motored away, Rick was waving his arms frantically at them from a distance, hollering that he had left his entire card set in the vehicle, rendering his game useless, and that he'd decided it might be better to begin his pious journey after they had stopped to grab some good complex carbohydrates someplace, and maybe even a milk shake. They never heard him over the sound of the engine and the untrammeled beauty of the landscape—which, yes, was so disgustingly beautiful that it produced actual musical notes. Nor did they ever find out what became of young Rick, remaining forever unaware of his ten-hour struggle to get two lousy seconds of decent shut-eye in the desert cold, his discovery at dawn of a Burger King, Barnes and Noble, Nike Outlet, and Target Superstore just a mile or so past the electrical towers, and his decision that he maybe wasn't really up for spiritual purity just now and was more suited to bussing tables for a while at a vegan restaurant beside the state's largest Red Lobster. He was sure he would have another go at the whole desert scenario at some point, but as summer turned to autumn, he became slightly more entranced by the idea of dating one of his co-workers, a seriously hot feminist who not only played the bewitching music of the Austrian one-stringed echospiel, but published her own underground 'zine about dumpster diving.
The Collective drove on through the soft night with Templeton at the wheel, though the mood inside the RV was not terribly upbeat. It was Jerzy Plenck who finally decided to get the boys back into a proper frame of mind twenty minutes after they dropped that long-haired fella off in the middle of nowhere.
"I've got a notion," he said as the others gazed out the windows. "Why not try out a new game, this one of my own design? That should take our minds off our sudden loss of manpower, and perhaps teach us some new skills as well."
Ben raised an eyebrow. "New game?"
"Yes indeed," Jerzy said, and opened his ever-surprising black leather suitcase, from which had already emerged everything from a six-pack of Thai noodle cups to a water filtration system to a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Now he produced a small wooden box with a gold-plated latch and placed it on the table in the dining area, or "eat part" as Ben called it. The Collective gathered around as the box was opened delicately.
Inside was what looked like a very rudimentary board game, a baseball sim whose components were made of nothing more fancy than cardboard and typing paper and a pair of dice that were worth only what a pair of normal dice would fetch on the open market (about thirty cents). Ben and the others had expected to see some sort of ruby dice, or maybe game boards carved from the original wood that built Noah's Ark, or something that would make them at least mildly envious of Plenck's magic fountain of cash. He placed the game on the table in front of him and sat down, adding to the mix a couple of little pencils swiped from a miniature golf course in Kansas City.
"I give you Thwack-a-Dinger Baseball," Plenck said, rolling up the sleeves of his expensive turtleneck sweater. "It has not yet been introduced to the general public, but soon, very soon, I will begin to market it. It is the result of almost a decade of design and testing."
"It doesn't look like much," Jake said, "Where are the player cards?"
"There are none, young man," Plenck said. "I found that the use of doppelgangers distracted from the central theme of the game."
"And what is that?" Curse asked, puzzled.
"Ah, you shall soon see. Who would like to be my opponent?"
"I'll give it a shot," Harold said, squishing himself behind the dining table.
"Very well, Mr. Pillick. Why don't you play the role of the visiting team, and I shall play the host."
"Can I be the Cannons?" Harold asked.
"No team names shall be brought into the game," Plenck said in the tone of a headmaster disciplining a fourth grader for asking to go to the bathroom thirty seconds after an exam had started.
"Um, okay," Harold said. "What are the rules?"
"Simply roll the dice," Plenck said, "and they shall be revealed to you. Oh, I am so glad I could share this game with you, gentlemen."
Everyone leaned over the shoulders of the gamers as Harold picked up the blue and green dice and rolled them carefully so the movement of the RV wouldn't send them off the table, as had been a major developing problem on the trip.
"That's a 36, or just a 9, depending on which numerical system this game uses," Jake volunteered.
"Or is it neither?" Plenck asked the air. "In Thwack-a-Dinger Baseball, we append the sum of seventy to all additive results, and then we multiply by nineteen. Thus, you just rolled a 1501 to begin our contest."
"Why do you do that?" Roy asked.
Plenck looked at him as if he had asked why you shouldn't eat expired ham. "Well, it sharpens the math skills, of course," he said, and lifted a thin chart on which a few dozen play results had been printed using an ink cartridge that had obviously been on its last legs. He read from it in theatrical tones. " 'The batter reaches first base due mostly to a marked lack of concentration by not just one player, but the opposing team as a whole.' Congratulations on your early advantage, Harold."
"All right, sounds good, though I'm not sure how we would score that exactly," Harold said. "Um, where are the base runner markers?"
Plenck chuckled without smiling. "I think we are adults enough to keep track of the progress of base runners using nothing more than our interior abaci," he commented dismissively.
"All right. Next batter up." Harold picked up the dice and prepared to roll them again, shaking them in a right hand that had become more and more effete since his retirement from the game. Instead of chicka-chicka-chicka, there was more of a doop-doop-doop sound.
"Just a moment," Plenck said, holding a hand up. "We must consult the Sacrifice Bunt table."
"I don't want to bunt," Harold said.
"Yeah, you swing for the fences, Grassy Pete," Ben said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Bunting. Even the sound of the word is ugly."
"Bunting is mandatory, I'm afraid," Plenck warned. "It is essential to the theme of the game."
"The theme of the game," Earl repeated. "I can't wait to see what it is. Mandatory bunting seems kind of strange."
Nevertheless, Harold, not wanting to be impolite, rolled the dice, and after some quick jottings on a slip of paper, came up with a result of 1387. The type was quite small on the sac bunt table, and Plenck had to don his teeny European reading glasses to make out what he had put there.
" 'The batter fails to bunt successfully,' " he read, " 'due to insufficient time spent visualizing successful outcomes during practice. Double play.' "
"This game seems kind of, you know, critical of people," Jake noted.
"Ah indeed," Plenck said. "It's the first baseball simulation that reflects the harshest truths of the mental game rather than our pie-eyed view of the physical abilities of its heroes. Here we see the decline of bunting ability as a consequence not of corporeal miscalculations, but of uneven interior states."
"Is that really necessary?" Harold asked. "I mean, aren't we supposed to just have fun?"
Again, Plenck gave him the Has-Your-Melon-Gone-Mushy look. "Fun is for ingesters of beer and swallowers of corn chips," he said. "Thwack-a-Dinger Baseball is about the realities of the deep cerebral game which we must confront now, lest the lack of true awareness on the part of its participants become a plague on all major leagues."
"When do you start thwacking dingers?" Ben asked.
"Homeruns? I think you'll find that their utter absence from my simulation will force us into a refreshing re-appraisal of defense, speed, critical thought, and above all, the mental conditioning of every man on the field."
"So the name is supposed to be ironic," Curse said.
Plenck frowned once again. "No, it's just a really exciting name," he said humorlessly. "Let's play on."
They did. With each minute that passed, the mood inside the RV darkened further as the APBA guru's board game reminded them again and again of human weakness and malaise. Outfielders were late with cut-off throws because they 'didn't truly understand that they were but one link in a chain of field functions necessary to the organism.' Batters fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch because they were 'lived more in terror of failure than in embrace of accomplishment.' When Harold asked if there was the possibility of replacing his pitcher, Plenck told him it was futile to do so; a side roll of the dice revealed that Harold's bullpen had 'simply left their essential desire behind' that day and would be completely ineffective.
"This game is weird," Jake said in the third inning, finally expressing the thoughts of everyone else standing around the table.
Plenck reacted with a bitterness none of them had seen from him before. "The 'weirdness,' as you call it, is entirely by design," he said.
"Is this by design?" Ben asked, pointing at something on the main result chart. "It looks like if you try to steal third, the only thing that can happen is that your runner trips halfway there and gets seriously hurt."
"A lesson for us all," Plenck said, a cautionary finger raised into the air.
"Let me guess," Templeton called back from the driver's seat, having monitored the game's progress as he drove. "Not even the seemingly simple navigation of the base paths is a given if one is lost in a grander sense."
"Oh boy," Earl said.
"Actually, I just think it's foolish to try to steal third," Plenck corrected him. "A manager should be grateful his runner got as far as second."
As the scoreless game slogged on and the RV rolled west through the Nevada darkness, more and more basic design flaws were revealed, and Plenck's veneer of grace and culture was alarmingly chipped away as he reacted to criticisms with more and more hostility. An absurd number of pop flies were lost in the sun in shallow left and became triples. If a batter struck out, the catcher inevitably tried to pick off the lead runner only to throw the ball into the stands and injure a spectator's kidney. No matter what happened, though, no one could seem to get safely to home plate. The chances of a man scoring from second on a single were about two percent, and even singles to the gap with a runner on third tended to result in the guy deciding it was 'more prudent' to stay where he was. Either that, or the third base coach held the runner 'in order to make the next batter prove his true worth to the team' by bringing him home with a hit.
"Oh, for goodness sakes!" Harold cried when, after loading the bases with nobody out, all three of his next batters fouled out harmlessly to the catcher. "Whenever the bases are loaded, every out is a foul out to the catcher!"
"Yeah, what gives there, Mr. Plenck?" Roy asked.
"I am growing very tired of hearing your churlish attacks on my game," Plenck snarled, his face displaying a little bit of color for the first time since they'd known him. "I suppose you'd rather be playing APBA."
"Well, duh," Curse said. "It actually makes some sense."
"You know nothing of the definition of the word!" Plenck shouted. "I give you a work of genius, and you do nothing but naysay and pshaw!"
"We don't mean to pshaw," Roy said apologetically, "but—"
Plenck held up a hand to shush him and struggled to work his way out from behind the table. It took a while, but he finally managed to stand up, not quite looming over all of them. "But nothing!" he said loudly. "Thwack-a-Dinger Baseball is a superior simulation, and that's all there is to it! I cannot be blamed if your puny minds aren't able to grasp my theme!"
"What was that again?" Ben asked.
Plenck riveted his hands to his hips. "The theme is Shutup!" he snapped.
"Well, that's kind of childish," Jake said.
"You seem different suddenly," Earl observed. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'll tell you how I'm feeling!" the guru shouted. "I'm not feeling myself at all—in fact, I'm feeling like a different person entirely! Gentlemen, meet your true fellow traveler—a man known in the sports gaming underworld as Bentley Harkaby!" With that, he reached up to his scalp and shockingly tore away his carefully tailored white wig to reveal a shock of slightly grayer hair underneath. Everyone gasped. Templeton, looking in the rearview mirror, applied what was left of the RV's brakes and swerved over to the shoulder.
"Yes, it's me!" the impostor bellowed. "Bentley Harkaby in the flesh!"
"Who?" asked Curse.
"He's the guy who invented some game called Hey Batter Hey Batter Hey Batter Hey Batter Swing," Ben said, taking two fearful steps back. "It sucked so bad he went crazy and tried to sabotage other company's games!"
"My game did not suck, and none of my efforts has ever sucked!" Harkaby defended himself. "Not Gentlemanly Stroll Golf, not Beware the Rim Basketball, and certainly not Thwack-a-Dinger Baseball! Is it my failing that this fetid society can't embrace any board game which invariably ends in a tie in order to teach the participants a much-needed tutorial in sportsmanship? You're all the problem, not me! Everyone in this noxious world is against me! But now, I have exacted a most curious revenge—you, Ben Glinton, have spent this trip learning absolutely nothing of value for your tournament. All the advice I've given you is useless. Useless! Everything I've taught is the exact opposite of what you should know to win at APBA!"
"Well, then I should just do the opposite of that, and I'll win, right?" Ben asked.
Harkaby hesitated and looked uncertainly down at his shoes. "No, no, no, nothing will work for you, so just forget about doing that," he warned, recovering himself. "You're hopeless. Hopeless! I know absolutely nothing about your stupid game!"
"I don't get it," Earl said. "You were certainly winning a lot for someone who claims to not know anything about it."
"I was cheating, you lackwits!" Harkaby revealed, pulling a pair of dice from his pocket. "These are loaded! You didn't even once think that all that nonsense about exo-rhythms and the 'truth of the numerological handprint' was total rubbish?"
They all looked at each other and shrugged.
"What a bunch of blundering tatterdemalions," Harkaby alleged. "Well, good luck winning your precious tournament now, Mr. Glinton, when you've improved not a single trifle!"
"Boy, no offense, but you must be really insane, Mr. Harkaby," Harold said. "You went to all the trouble of tricking Fergus Hibbert into thinking you were some kind of Zen master, creating some incredible ultimate APBA set, making a wig even though none of us had any idea what you looked like anyway...all to prevent someone you don't even know from winning a tournament that's completely meaningless to you?"
"Quite insane," seconded Templeton, having turned off the RV's engine and come back to join the others in case somebody needed the help of an ex-Marine and National Book Award finalist to defuse this unpredictable madman.
"Don't forget deceiving you into thinking my riches were gained by betting on sports instead of how I really attained my wealth: through bringing nuisance lawsuits against the Mormon church!" Plenck said. "But it was all worth it, I assure you. I'll travel to any lengths and continue to do whatever it takes to make you people realize the intellectual futility of playing any other board game than the ones I create. Acknowledge my brilliance here and now, or you shall suffer even greater consequences!"
"We'll take our chances, you nutjob," Curse said. "Wow, you are seriously loony tunes. How come you just don't use all that money you have to advertise your lousy game and sell it online or something?"
"I've tried, ingrates, and I've been rewarded with sales figures more insulting to me than even you are. The public is too busy listening to that infernal rock music and playing Space Man Invasion on their television sets to appreciate the enrichment I have to offer!"
"Mr. Harkaby, could you give me your place of birth?" Roy asked, taking notes for Ben's bio. "And is Harkaby spelled with two Ks or just one?"
"Kudos on your master plan to make me look stupid and all, Hannibal Lecter," Ben said. "Now, um, where can we drop you?"
"Oh, I didn't just make you look foolish, Glinton," Plenck said, rubbing his hands together. "I went into your wallet my first night here and found the tattered Arby's coupon on which you had written all the e-mail addresses you used to alert people to your puerile tournament, plus the names of the media outlets you attempted to inform. Let's just say they all got a second e-mail yesterday....one which surely guarantees you'll be playing APBA only amongst yourselves tomorrow!"
"You total wanker!" Ben cried. "What did you tell them?"
"Simply that the tournament's only prize would be not twenty thousand dollars, but a single tube of generic denture polish," said the smiling spy. "Game, set, and match, fellows. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be getting out right here, if you don't mind." He pushed his puny way past them all, leaving his suitcase behind, and turned to issue a final insult. "And thank you, Mr. Pillick, for boring me to tears these past two nights with a laundry list of your secret ambitions. I hope finding and killing the Loch Ness Monster will bring you every happiness!" With that, he stepped out of the RV and started walking down the dark, empty highway.
They all peered through the windshield, and Templeton switched the headlights on to see him better. Plenck didn't turn back. He moved swiftly away from them with that style of walking of his which was so incredibly irritating for no particular reason.
"Yikes," Roy said. "How are we going to get word back to all those people in time to get them to change their minds about the tournament? It starts tomorrow at one!"
"We'll stop somewhere and I'll try to reverse the damage, maybe make some calls," Ben said, shoulders sagging as if he were a beach ball recently poked with a hairpin. "Wow, I guess I'm not going to be able to win this thing after all. I'm as dumb as I ever was."
"Don't say that, Ben," Harold said. "If we start now, we can all help you."
"I'm not even in the mood to play," Ben sighed. "Now where in the world is that guy going? Does he realize we're still in the desert?"
"He'll be all right," Curse said. "He's rich. He'll call a cab from a pay phone or something, or maybe he'll bump into Rick."
Templeton started the engine and they rolled slowly forward, eventually pulling up beside Harkaby. The window rolled down and Earl's head poked out.
"Mr. Harkaby, do you want us to use the cell phone to maybe call you a cab somehow?" he asked.
"Silence!" Harkaby said, not looking at them. "Go lick the substantial wounds I've inflicted, lowly peasants!"
Roy's head poked out too. "Do you at least want your wig back?" he asked.
"Just toss it, please," Harkaby instructed. Roy threw it out towards him and it fell to the pavement. Harkaby picked it up, never stopping, and put it crookedly on his head. After that, they drove on, leaving the saboteur, who come to think of it was virtually a senior citizen, to his own sinister devices. As fate would have it, not only would he be just fine, but an hour later he would find another two hundred and twelve thousand dollars in a paper bag along the side of the road. Fate just didn't know what to make of the man named Bentley Harkaby.
"The place feels kind of empty," Roy said when they had all sat down again, bumping along at fifty miles per hour. It was time to start forgetting this embarrassing episode and start thinking about what would comprise their last dinner on the trip west.
"No one else gets off this bus or reveals their true identity until we get to where we're going," Ben told them. "No more surprises. I need a nice cheeseburger, and I need it now."
"At least we're less than twelve hours away from Las Vegas," Templeton said, noticing a road sign fly past them. "Won't be long now!"
Ben put a quizzical finger to his lips. "Wait a second....did I say Las Vegas? Is that what I've been saying? Oh shoot, I meant Reno, I'm sorry. Yeah, I should have been saying Reno all this time. That's where we're going. The site of the tournament is Reno. Duh. Totally my mistake. Totally."
Once again, the odds were defied when Ben's kind-hearted peers refrained from pummeling him with towels wrapped around heavy bars of soap, though any non-partisan judge would have ruled that the justification to do so was certainly there. Seeing how down Ben was after Plenck's revelation that his lessons had been a total waste of time, they refrained from even poisoning his ginger snaps. Templeton took the next right turn and they motored on into the night, noticeably lighter but no wiser than they were an hour before.