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18. Lexington Redemption, an Unwelcome Intruder, and the Girl with the Tarantula Tattoo

Their arrival in the sort-of fabled city of dreams at eleven a.m. the next morning would have caused much celebration if the treasonous wreck that brought them there didn't finally up and die twelve feet short of the city line. The TRAVEL OPTION made a sound like a donkey choking on a pancake just as they all laid grateful eyes on the WELCOME TO RENO sign, and the next thing they knew, the exhaust system fell off. They got out of the RV, kicked the pipes into a ditch, and gazed longingly ahead of them, where buildings beckoned in the distance.

"All right, boys," Ben said, "grab whatever you can out of the house. We're walking."

Some personal possessions were gathered, but not too many beyond the APBA sets. Templeton started the engine just long enough to move the RV well off the road into the cracked and weedy parking lot of the Helvetico Roulette and Coat Check Supply, and Jake took a last picture of the heap for the scrapbook. Ben saluted it and they turned to begin walking the last one and three-quarters miles that would dump them into the lobby of the Lucky Ape Hotel and Casino, built in 1997 with money that never actually existed, a fact that would eventually come as quite a surprise to its Lebanese investors.

The desert sun bore down on them like hot butter on a dinner roll. No one passing them by in their luxurious, fully inspected and insured vehicles bothered to stop. As soon as the Collective got to the first sign of real civilization, which in this case happened to be a condemned massage parlor, they rested on a bench in the shade while Ben lugged his sweaty self across the street to a pay phone. The others watched him dial number after number and gesticulate madly into the handset in an attempt to convince whoever he could that the tournament was indeed on, and that the prize money was a go, although even the cost of the promised generic tube of denture polish was somewhat beyond him at this point. When he had completed four or five calls, he made another mad, jaywalk-laden dash across the busy street, clipped only once by a passing Volvo. Despite their fear that Ben would meet an untimely end just trying to get from one side of the road to another, the group's spirits were buoyed by the sounds of traffic and activity and the sights of people everywhere, whereas during the last few days, two clumps of tumbleweed bumping into each other was considered rush hour.

"Doesn't look like you had much luck," Templeton said. He was taking the heat especially hard, owning a writer's mostly sedentary body.

"I gave it a shot," Ben said. "I got a good feeling about the local public affairs station maybe sending a guy over."

"We only have two hours left till the tournament starts," Harold said. "Let's just hope for the best."

They marched onward, past a check cashing outlet, an off-track betting joint, a store that sold irregular sunglasses, a $3.99 lobster buffet (the restaurant defined "lobster" in very small print as "any hard-shelled ocean or creek mollusk"), an RV dealer specializing in lightly used TRAVEL OPTIONs, the Optimistic Hooker Lounge and Gaming Parlor, and a wig outlet. Beyond it all, at the very outer limits of their endurance, lay the Lucky Ape, its entrance guarded by a giant metal replica of the jungle's favorite son. Visitors and guests were obligated to walk through the ape's gaping mouth in order to reach the air conditioning within.

"We made it!" Harold beamed.

"How are you doing, Jake?" Earl asked his son.

"These irregular sunglasses smell like feet," Jake replied. Other than that, he had more energy than anyone, as usual.

"This heat reminds me of that four-game series we played that August in Arizona a few years back," Curse said. "Greeny made me pitch on short rest. I swore I'd never spend a day in a hot climate again."

"I remember that series," Ben said. "Greeny swore he'd never use me in center field again."

Entering the modestly decorated hotel was like diving into the icy waters of the Atlantic. Someone had decided to crank the air conditioning up to a level commonly referred to in the cooling and heating industry as "Doomsday Scenario." They were cooled down by the time they got to the front desk.

"The last name's Glinton, checking in," Ben said to the clerk. "And I'm running the APBA tournament too, such as it is."

"Welcome, Mr. Glinton," the clerk greeted him perkily, typing a few keystrokes on his secondhand computer. His nametag bore a single word: TODDY. "Your room for a one-night stay is ready for you."

"Room, not rooms?" Roy asked despairingly.

"And the gathering in the conference center to your left will be most happy to begin the tournament," Toddy added. "I'm only sorry that the room can barely hold the crowd."

"Say what?" Ben asked. "Crowd? Barely?"

"Yes," Toddy said. "Had we known there would be such a massive turnout, we could have made arrangements to open up the Mad Monkey Ballroom."

Dumbfounded, Ben and the others looked off to the left. A tall pair of double doors was sealed tight, bearing a single hand-lettered sign that read APBA THING IN HERE. Earl crossed the lobby and pulled one of the doors open.

"Scent my socks!" Earl gasped. "It's a mob scene!"

Templeton, Curse, Harold, Roy, Jake, and Ben all rushed over to the entrance and stood there, shell-shocked. Inside the nondescript room, which was no bigger than a junior high school auditorium, were hundreds of people, milling around, socializing, and already playing exhibition games on the dozen or so cheap cafeteria tables set up for the purpose. Many of the people wore APBA shirts and caps, and gamers were examining each other's card sets and chattering excitedly. Far more shocking than the huge crowd of APBAites, though, was the sight of so many TV cameras and media types dotting the room, looking for all the world like they were getting ready for the Emmys to begin.

"What the hell..." Ben stammered, both delighted and terrified.

"Looks like you said the right things on the phone somehow," Roy said.

"What, are you kidding?" Ben said. "That was only fifteen minutes ago, and anyway, I was so depressed that I was just miming conversations. I didn't call anybody. It wouldn't have done any good. Something crazy is going on here."

Earl was the first to realize what had happened. He noticed the small and misspelled banner that the hotel had hung over the dented and somewhat charred lectern at the front of the room. It welcomed all APBA players, and gave a special Lucky Ape embrace to....

"Oh, no," Ben said, closing his eyes.

"He's here!" a delirious voice said behind him, and a teenaged APBA fan nudged Ben aside to penetrate the crowd. "There he is!"

From a side entrance came none other than Spike Vail, surrounded by his usual entourage of agents, biographers, and media flunkies. Grinning like a contented eel, Spike began shaking hands left and right as flashbulbs snapped. He was wearing what Ben usually wore in public: sweatpants, old sneakers, and a T-shirt whose ownership was actually a point of some dispute. When Spike Vail wore this stuff, it was considered cool. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed, but his smile was its typical Hollywood perfection.

"Why is he here?" Templeton asked no one in particular.

"Mr. Vail called the hotel last night and expressed an interest in participating in the tournament," said Toddy the hotel clerk from behind him, having covertly sidled up when no one was paying attention. "He signed up to play just like everyone else. Just in the last few hours, we started getting reservations by the truckload. By the way, gentlemen, is there a Mr. Walter Williger in your group?"

"Yeah, that's me," Curse said.

"We have a phone message for you at the desk, Mr. Williger," Toddy told him.

"Oh. Okay. I'll be back, guys." He followed Toddy back out into the lobby.

"Spike Vail," Ben said, teeth gritted. "Figures he'd have to show up and steal all our thunder."

"I was just reading in the paper last night that his new CD isn't selling very well," Earl said. "Maybe he's desperate for a little promotion."

"That CD is really bad," Jake said. "A kid at space camp had it. Spike talks about all his statistics in every song. He didn't leave out a single year."

"What he's desperate for, if I know Spike Vail, is to win anything and everything," Ben said, watching the man chat up a Thunder Dunk anchor for a live camera. "Well, I may go down today in typically disgraceful fashion, but no way am I gonna lose to that guy."

"I'm going to get a little closer to see if I can maybe get a quote for the book," Roy said, taking out a fresh pencil.

"You, um, might want to shower first," Templeton suggested. "We all should, if we want to be in human condition when the tournament starts."

"Yeah, let's go up to the room and clean up and maybe grab a nap before one o'clock," Harold said. "If Deenie were to somehow materialize right now and see me like this, she'd use the hose on me."

"I wonder how good these players are," Earl wondered. "Oh no...there's Darla Volume."

"Darla? You mean a girl?" Ben asked, following Earl's gaze. In the center of the room, sitting alone at one of the cafeteria tables and smoking a cigarette in clear violation of conference center policy, was a striking young woman of about twenty, dressed all in stylish black with hair to match. Even her lipstick was the color of midnight.

"I saw her on the front page of an APBA newsletter last year," Earl said. "She's a wizard at the game. She doesn't even like it. She just plays it because no one expects a girl to be any good."

"She's pretty," Roy said, drooling a little. "Pretty girl is pretty."

"I think she might be a bit out of your league there, Fargo," Ben said, noticing Darla's intense green eyes and general aura of disdain for all creatures great and small, especially APBA types. She bore a tarantula tattoo on her long thin neck. Unlike most of the attendees, she hadn't brought anything game-related with her.

"And look, there's the Davis brothers, Chris and Brian," Jake said, pointing. "I played them last year in a competition in Pottsville, remember, Dad? They got into that fist fight with each other about whether or not to try to throw one of my runners out at home plate or cut the throw off from right field."

"They were still really good, as I recall," Earl said. "This should be a pretty intense day."

"I'll show these people some intensity," Ben vowed, completely infused with the sense of purpose that had been seemingly lost as they crossed the Midwest. The murmur of the crowd, the lights, the cameras, the knowledge that an unworthy athlete intended to steal the glory which by all rights was his all took Ben back to his wide-eyed early days in the big leagues when he thought he could be a superstar if only he could get a lot better at hitting, throwing, catching, and running.

"Looks like everyone's already agreed to a tournament format," Templeton noted, gesturing at an easel set up near the lectern. Someone had drawn up rudimentary brackets, and it appeared that the names of the Collective were already penciled in, having been taken right off the sign-up sheet at the front desk.

"So there's nothing we need to do but get into the zone," Ben said. "All right, let's pop up to the room, change, and then seize our destiny." He turned and they all followed him through the tall doors again as Spike Vail began signing autographs. Virtually everyone in attendance began to form a line.

Curse was standing right outside the conference center, looking down at a tiny slip of paper. He looked like someone had conked him over the head with the butt end of a rake.

"What's up, Curse?" Ben asked him.

"The Cannons called," Curse said wonderingly. "Jim Byrne got dive-bombed by a pigeon on the mound last night. He's out for six weeks. The Cannons want to sign me."

"That's amazing!" said Roy. "Don't they know you called your retirement 'one hundred percent, in-your-face, get-off-my-lawn permanent'?"

"They do, yeah," Curse said. "But they're desperate. They think they have a shot to get back into the playoffs if they have a solid number two guy behind Phil Graham. They have Peter Ventura as their pitching coach now, and he remembers me from my rookie year with the Tight Sox."

"What's the money like?" Earl asked. "Big bucks?"

"Huh? Oh, um, I didn't really ask. I was so blown away that they'd ask me back."

"Playing for the Cannons again," Harold mused. "Imagine that."

"Do you really want to, though?" Ben asked. "You just told me the other day that you were ready to never think about it again."

"I guess that was when I figured it could never happen," Curse said. "I said so many bad things about the umpires...they might make it hard for me."

"The Cannons are a pretty well-rounded team this year," Templeton said. "It wouldn't surprise me if they were able to put a run together and squeak into the playoffs. You'd be a better lefty than Michael Cieslinski, I bet. His curve ball is getting weaker and weaker."

"And his placement is getting worse and worse," Curse said, looking down at the floor for answers. He looked like a little kid about to start his very first day of kindergarten after hearing that it was filled with dragons and mummies and werewolves. "Oh man, they want to send a car to take me to the airport in fifteen minutes. I have to call them back now or never."

"I say do it, Curse," Ben said. "Win a few games, get them into the Series again, get that nickname of yours wiped out."

"Seriously, that's your opinion?"

"Yeah. You can't turn down a chance at the big time. That's a what-if situation you don't want hanging over your head for the rest of your days."

"What do you think, Harold?" Curse asked. "Would you go back if they wanted you?"

"In a heartbeat," Harold said, nodding. "Nobody ever really gets a second chance in life to go back and write their own ending. You should take it. We're baseball players. We should try to stay baseball players until they throw us out kicking and screaming. We weren't ever supposed to be anything else. Well, I'm an exception, maybe, but you know what I mean."

"You'll be great, Walter," Templeton said. "You're still in excellent shape, and you know more about pitching now than you ever did."

"I haven't thrown in so long, I could really make a fool out of myself," Curse worried. "Sometimes I get these aches in my foot, too. I doubt I can plant hard enough to get my velocity up as much as I need to."

"That championship ring might not come any other way," Earl said. "Darla Volume's in that room. She's going to eat us all alive."

Curse was silent for a moment, but it didn't seem like there was much of a decision to be made. "Athletes," he said simply, shaking his head. "We can't stay away. Just don't know what's good for us."

Ben slapped him on the arm. "If it seems like the hitters have an edge over you because you're rusty, you know what to do, pal," he said.

"Throw completely wild, put a few of them down, scare the bejesus out of everybody," Curse said.

"That's right."

"Okay. I'll try. I'll give it a shot." He cradled his APBA set under one arm. "Gonna take this with me on the plane. I'll be rooting for you guys. Especially you, Ben."

"Thanks, man."

Curse shook all their hands in turn. He told Jake not to push his relievers too hard during the tournament, and thanked Templeton for signing a book for him, which he would read during the Cannons' upcoming road trip to Sacramento, where, if things went according to plan, he would be taking the mound once again after a three year absence from the game.

"I must be crazy, or just a total hypocrite," Curse said in the end, chuckling a little as he walked away from the Collective. "I'll have tickets waiting for everybody when we play Philadelphia, if I'm still on the team."

"You will be," Ben called after him. "Go destroy some people."

Curse placed a very brief call back to the Cannons' front office and then walked out of the lobby, through the mouth of the metal ape, and into the bright late morning sunlight to wait for his ride. It seemed to the gang that he walked with the same cocky stride he used to have whenever he took the mound in the first inning, before his anger at the umpires and the game in general ruined everything. Maybe it was just their imagination. Or maybe the air conditioning was turned up so freaking high that their very visual perception had become unreliable.

"The time of victory approaches," Ben said, taking their room key out of his pocket, and everyone headed for the elevator.

"Ah, Ben, you told me to remind you as soon as we got to the hotel that we still don't have the rest of the prize money yet," Roy said.

"The time of victory approaches," Ben said again as the elevator doors closed shut. "One hurdle at a time, Roy."

19. Gentlemen, Load Your Shakers

At 12:45 p.m., when the Collective descended from the seventh floor of the Lucky Ape and entered the Dangling Vine Conference Center, the ever-helpful Toddy informed Ben that the lectern set up at the front of the room was for his benefit, placed there so he could give a little introduction to the tournament and award the day's grand prize after everything finished up. At 12:57, after mingling some with the crowd, which had thinned just a little bit after signatures had been secured from Spike Vail, Ben went over to the star. One of his flunkies started to hold a hand up but Spike maneuvered around him to greet Ben.

"Hey, Ben Glinton!" he said cheerfully. "Man, I haven't seen you since we took the Series! You kind of checked out early, know what I mean? Last thing I saw, you were jumping off the top of a fence and a bus almost creamed you."

"Yeah, how ya doing," Ben said. "How'd you suddenly get so interested in this scene?"

"Oh, I have to make sure the name of Spike Vail is getting treated right, you know. Plus I'm gonna be managing someday soon, and I want to get my feet wet, oh yeah."

"Great, great. So, no endorsement deals at all going on here? You're not pitching anything to the crowd?"

"Now that you mentioned it, I do have a super deal going on with the good people at Cyclops Cola," Spike said, finally letting go of Ben's hand. Ben's fillings would continue to rattle for another three minutes. "I've been signing empty six-packs. Ever tried Cyclops? It's good, tastes a little like chocolate milk. Plus if I win the tournament, I'm giving half my prize money to my charity, Cigarettes for Seniors."

"Well, good luck," Ben said. "I'm sure you'll keep things low key."

"Low key, yeah, right!" Spike said. "Let's get this mother revved up!"

Ben walked over to the lectern and tapped the microphone, producing an impressive whine of feedback. The gamers who had been comparing card sets and swapping gossip looked over.

"Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Nineteen Thousand, Four Hundred and Fifty Dollar Tournament of Valiants. I'm Ben Glinton."

There was scattered applause, and a solitary jeer from somewhere in the crowd. Ben scanned it to isolate the villain, but he couldn't pick him out. Still, not a bad reaction overall. The feeling inside the room was just too good to produce any serious booing.

"Speaking of the nineteen grand," he went on, "the grand prize will definitely be every bit of that money, not just some kind of ointment that a crazy person told you about in some unauthorized e-mail."

"Oh, we all know about Bentley Harkaby," someone near the front said. "He made the mistake of signing his e-mails. We know he's crazier than crap." A titter ran through the crowd.

"Excellent. Everyone just select teams of roughly equal records," Ben instructed, "and let's begin. Advice from co-managers is allowed. Find your opponent on the match-up chart, grab a table, and just start rolling. I've arranged for the Lucky Ape to provide snacks and finger foods. Looks like it's mostly just three kinds of saltless pretzels, but I think I spotted some bologna in there somewhere, and apparently Cyclops Cola put a case of something out."

"There's ice if you go down the hall, up two flights of stairs, take a left, then a right, and then one more left," said Toddy, who wouldn't go away. He was sitting at one of the cafeteria tables beside the crazy Davis brothers, who both bore bandages on their faces from a noontime scuffle over which font was the best one APBA had ever used on the player cards.

"Thanks," Ben said. "Okay, APBA-heads, go to it!"

There was some applause, and people began to crowd around the easel on which the pairings had been written. Most already knew who they were going up against and seats were taken, scoresheets broken out, and player envelopes unclasped. Ben, his stomach filled with not only butterflies but what felt like some tiny manic-depressive dude playing the bongoes, felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see a mild-mannered school-teacherish fellow smiling at him shyly. "Hello, my name is Ron Pisarz," he said. "I believe I'm your opponent in the first round. I should tell you, I've never played APBA before. I thought this was a Jenga tournament. But I'm willing to learn if you can bring me along slowly."

Secretly, Ben did a clumsy cartwheel inside his brain, almost knocking over a lamp. Finally, here was someone he could roll over with ease. "Sure thing," he said. "Let's find a seat."

It was going to an interesting first round for everyone in the collective. Jake was matched against a twenty-five year old chap named Ivo, who was from Chechnya. An American relative had sent him one of the original versions of APBA Baseball years ago and he had taught himself the game even as his war-torn country fell apart around him. "I am so grinning to be here in your nation's capital, playing this wonderful game," he told Jake, fairly busting with excitement. "I've never played against another. Will I be defeated?"

"I dunno," Jake said. "Your country isn't going to, um, not let you back in if you lose, right?"

"Oh no," Ivo assured him, "I have much too vast importance to my government's internal security to be sent away."

On the other side of the room, Templeton had drawn a name that was quite familiar to him. T.L. Harris was the author of the acclaimed series of Napoleonic war novels which had been recently turned into a quite terrible CBS mini-series. Even more recently, he had written a scathing review of Templeton's The Dying Cloud Whispereth, calling it "a masterpiece, to be sure, but just barely, filled with parts that have difficulty even qualifying as excellent." The two men sat across from each other and shook hands tersely.

"Good to see you, Harris," Templeton said. "I hope our game won't bore you as much as my writing apparently does."

"Oh, Templeton, come off it," Harris retorted. "I'm sure you do the best you can with your public school education."

Templeton shoved his dice into his shaker with extreme prejudice and pulled from his card set the team envelope containing his beloved 1977 Connecticut Corduroys. "You're going down, hoser," he warned, and they began.

Earl was sitting right beside them. Right off the bat, he had drawn one of the more whispered-about competitors in the building. This man gave his name only as Phineus. He spoke with a thick Austrian accent and was decked out in a sharp dark blue suit. Phineus seemed like the sort of man who might win the tournament handily and then throw a single memory-erasing cloud pellet onto the table before somersaulting out the nearest window into a waiting black van with tinted windows. He was always looking over his shoulder and kept feeling around beneath the cafeteria tables when he thought no one was watching, as if probing for evidence of covert audio surveillance. He never said a word unless he absolutely had to, and most unsettling of all, the sole card set he had shown up with (the power-heavy, speed-challenged 1988 Trenton Potstickers) was more than a little spotted with dried blood.

Harold and Roy walked from table to table as everyone played, happy to just be spectators, though it was somewhat difficult for Roy, who had to chew a great deal of spearmint gum to suppress the urge to join in on the action. He used Templeton's mini-cassette recorder to document the sounds of the games and the chatter of the players. It would all go into the last chapter of Ben's biography, whose title, he had decided, would be Please Don't Call Me The Blemish Anymore; It's Really, Really Hurtful. They did their best not to get drawn into the gathering which watched Spike Vail square off against a fifteen year old kid who seemed far too star-struck to make sound baseball decisions, but there was such a buzz around their game that they couldn't resist taking in at least a few innings. Height-challenged Roy had a lot of trouble seeing over the shoulders of the media people who peppered Spike with questions about his most recent trade demands as he rolled his dice and began to easily trounce his opponent, managing his own team from the season before, with himself batting cleanup. To Spike Vail, everything about baseball came naturally, and APBA seemed to be no exception. He didn't need to make smart moves; the dice pretty much won the game for him. The spectators applauded with every base hit that sealed his victory. Ben looked up from his own game once in a while, irritated.

Ron, the guy who had never even played the game before, took Ben into the ninth inning tied and with a runner on first and nobody out. Ben was ready to dowse himself in kerosene and light a match. Ron, who really was a schoolteacher, didn't even understand the rules of baseball itself, much less the board game version, but Ben had gotten overconfident early and tried to squash the man by sending in his best two relievers at the slightest sign that a run might score. Errors and walks had kept things close, and right around the time Ben had explained to Mr. Pisarz what a double play was, the guy's dice had gotten absurdly hot. He never made a managerial move not forced upon him and stuck with his starter even after the guy was completely gassed. And yet, still there was a chance Ben was going to get bounced. He survived the ninth and when the game went into extra innings, Templeton and Jake came over to lend him moral support, having survived the first round. Earl went down in defeat to Phineus, 2-1, on a late ground rule double with the bases loaded, and the man known as the man of mystery remained sitting at the table as Earl slunk off.

"I'm certain we shall meet again," Phineus told him cryptically, putting his player cards away. "Perhaps in a battle of another, Mr. Kelshnikov?"

"My name is Earl, Earl Peavey," Earl said.

Phineus looked at him knowingly. " you say," he whispered. Then, without another word, he stood, walked over to the fire exit, and looking around him furtively, pushed the door open by backing into it. He made a strange sign with his hands, sort of a circular cross on his forearm meant to be seen by Earl and no one else, and then disappeared. Earl was left to figure out what sort of crackpot he had been playing against....or had his opponent not been a crackpot at all, but a man with secret knowledge of the shadowy history of Earl B. Peavey, and of a former life ruled not by a wife, son, and steady job with a major American soy sauce concern, but by the dagger, false passport, and cleverly constructed falsehood? What name had been whispered between them in a Dutch café in 1977 to seal the fate of three counterspies who had made the deadly mistake of underestimating Earl's facility with psychological torture? What had happened to the microfilm he and Phineus buried in an empty field in Berdsk a year later, leaving alliances in ruin and the Cold War itself burning more brightly than ever? The answers to these questions were actually quite moot: As usual, Phineus had completely mistaken Earl for somebody else. His eyesight was just plain awful, and he simply refused to admit he needed contacts. Earl, whose closest brush to the world of espionage came when he rented All the President's Men, burped quietly, wiped his glasses on the bottom of his sweater, and moseyed over to Ben's game to lend a hand.

"Whooooo-hoooooo!" Ben exclaimed just as he got over there. "Single to left! Victory is mine!" He let out a whooshing sigh of relief as the man across from him snapped his fingers in good-natured frustration.

"Well, it's no Jenga, but it's still a really good game," Ron Pisarz said. "See you later, Mr. Glinton."

"All right, who's next on the hit list?" Ben asked anyone who happened to be nearby. "Let's keep the 1:40 Glinton train to Nirvana moving!"

Round two was more of a test, and only through an act of divine providence did Ben live to see another hour. Playing a relentlessly dour man, who at age 75 was the oldest player in the tournament, Ben made a couple of tactical errors that wiped out a couple of two-run homers by the fairly mediocre first baseman for the 2001 San Diego Sweepies, Darrin Hunter. The senior citizen who grunted loudly after every dice roll, no matter what the result, climbed back into the game with ease and Ben felt the hand of doom smoosh its long bony fingers in his hair again. But when Darrin Hunter connected for a third homerun, Ben just knew he was going to win again.

"Good God, that's man's on fire!" shouted an anonymous spectator who had lost in round one. Ben couldn't be absolutely sure he was merely talking about Darrin Hunter, so he assumed the compliment was directed at himself.

The old man grunted. For the fifth or sixth time during the game, he demanded that Ben verify the board result giving him a homerun, as if a '1' on a player's card could possibly mean anything else.

"Unfair, unfair," muttered the old man. "I've been playing this game for fifty years, and no one that bad has ever hit three homeruns."

Ben realized he had a point. If they had played five hundred games, Hunter probably would never again have been able to poke three into the cheap seats during any one of them. His card was festooned with 13s (almost always strikeouts) and 24s (hello, double plays), but his APBA self had chosen to grab one moment of glory at the most opportune time available. Ben hoped that wherever he was, Hunter felt the good karma; his career had ended in 2003 after an accident with an Easy Bake oven had ruined his left knee. Ben led the game 7-5 going into the top of the ninth, and the old man went down feebly on three rolls.

"I didn't lie about my age to fight in World War II to be beaten like this, sonny," he growled. "If you ever need help from the men of the 41st Infantry, you can forget about it."

"God bless America," Ben said consolingly, but as soon as the veteran had left the table, Ben threw his hands up in elation. "I got it all today!" he blurted, but no one was really listening. Just a few feet away, Spike Vail was absolutely clobbering a guy who actually played in the Mexican minor leagues by a score of 13-0. Darla Volume was coolly taking apart her second opponent managing no one better than the 1988 Madison Mushies, a team that formed and disbanded within the same season. She rolled the dice with her right hand while in her left she never stopped cycling through the songs in her CD collection, which she stacked beside the playing field. All the CDs were by women, and all those women recorded with feminist record labels, and all those record labels donated money to liberal causes, and all those liberal causes got five hours of volunteer time per week from Darla Volume. She made her strategic moves effortlessly and merely shrugged when she won, as if beating her invariably male opponents were the easiest thing in the world. She had been asked on four dates since 12:30 and accepted none of them. Her heart was dedicated to one goal: showing up the male species which thought it owned APBA just like it supposedly owned everything else. Everyone was dreading what she was going to say when she took the lectern to claim her prize money. The last time she'd won a competition, she'd gone off on a half hour rant against society's unwillingness to pay midwives a living wage.

Templeton got through round two in his inimitable fashion, stretching the game out with unbearably slow decisions which eventually grated on his opponent enough to the point where the poor guy simply lost his concentration. Jake won again as well, zipping through his game a mile a minute, bouncing up and down on his chair, performing difficult mathematical calculations in his head during the roll of the dice and out-managing a man four times older than he in half the time of a normal game. After game two, Jake galloped to stuff his face with pretzels and console his Dad, whom he secretly knew didn't have a chance in heck to win it all anyway.

There was a ten-minute break, the crowd thinning out a bit with some of the losers heading off to the corners of the room to engage in more casual contests. Then round three began. It went as follows:

Jake beat a computer program called The Inscrutable Skipper which someone had installed onto a PC and let loose against the field. It set its lineups by poring over years of APBA data and then made managerial moves by having a third party (in this case, Roy) type in the current situation and score, after which it spat out its desires in hot pink text on a black screen. It gave Jake a scare but nothing more. When it lost, 8-4, it was wheeled harmlessly away and sat forgotten in a corner. The man who had spent eleven years designing the software hung his head low and drank deeply from a bottle of gin.

Templeton lost exactly the kind of game he should have won, a fairly boring, low-scoring affair, but his bullpen let him down in the end. He would describe the loss in excruciating detail a year later in one of the longest essays ever written for Harper's magazine, using it to illustrate many points about why the Tet cease fire did not hold in 1968. His only consolation was that the man who beat him received a phone call in the seventh inning from his wife, telling him she had found out where he had snuck off to, and a divorce filing was now imminent. The guy had to suddenly dash home, forfeiting his place in the tournament.

Spike Vail won again, this time on a homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning by some player he'd never heard of, even though he'd actually played with the man for two years. When that last dinger sailed into the stands, Spike stood up, made both a two-handed swinging motion and a thwacking sound by popping his finger in his cheek, then literally jogged around the cafeteria table to simulate a homer trot. The cameras ate it up. Every minute that Spike was in the tournament meant more advertising dollars for the Thunder Dunk Sports Network, who broadcasted it all live. Ben made it into one of the camera shots exactly once, when he got up to go to the bathroom.

Ben was losing his game three in the fifth inning when he had a revelation. He had made virtually no pro-active moves to win his first two games, and it occurred to him that this was exactly how the uneducated Ron Pisarz had managed to stay competitive for so long. So, in full panic mode after falling behind 4-2 with the 2005 Memphis Cymbal Crashes, Ben decided to go completely minimalist and do....nothing. He refused to even think about endangering his team by attempting a steal, putting on a hit and run, playing the infield in, or even changing his pitcher. For the first time in his life, he decided to clamp down on his traitorous brain entirely. He was ever so tempted to insert a pinch runner with a man on second and two outs, and to bring in Keith Avallone to stare down three consecutive lefties in the other guy's lineup, but instead he did absolutely nada. And the next thing he knew, he was ahead 5-4. His mind told him to bring his closer in with one out in the ninth, but he didn't. He didn't even make a most obvious defensive substitution. He just rolled the dice and watched the dice be rolled. And the next thing he knew, he had advanced to round four.

"Did you just do what I think you just did?" Harold asked him as Ben took a long, exhausted sip from a warm Cyclops Cola.

"I did," Ben said. "I put up a No Trespassing sign on my brain. Roy, you may not want to write this down for the biography, but as of this date, I have officially issued a vote of no confidence to my own head. I am now completely ready to accept the fact that, though I'm sure God loves me, I'm just not terribly bright."

"I think that's quite brave of you, Ben," Templeton said, walking over from his loss. "And probably the smartest move you could ever make. No offense."

"None taken, Emmitt my man," Ben said. "My God, am I close to winning it all? Is this possible?"

"Semi-finals next round," Harold said. "Ben, what was that you were saying about....The Call?"

"Ah yes," Ben said. "The prize money. Tell you what, get a couple of quarters ready. If I make it through round four, I'll find a phone. Until then, I'm just going to sit here and Zen out, if you don't mind."

Templeton rubbed one of Ben's shoulders and Earl rubbed the other. Some people standing around the brackets board had transferred the names of the third round winners to the next level.

"Spike Vail will play...Ben Glinton!" someone announced, and Ben felt another rush of adrenalin surge through his system, followed by a surge of imitation sugar as he drained the last of his Cyclops Cola. No liquid as disgusting had ever entered his system, but the fake sugar, banned in nine states, was going to be of some definite use, oh yes, indeed, very much so, yes, definitely, for sure, no doubt about it, indeed.

20. Wuthering Dice, or Spike's Near-Death Experience Inspires Him to Appreciate the Simple Beauty of, You Know, Leaves and Stuff

"Greeny? What are you doing here?"

Ben had taken his seat opposite Spike Vail, and, looking to his left where Darla Volume was about to take on Jake Peavey, saw his old Cannons manager sitting down gruffly beside the kid. He had trouble recognizing Greeny St. Clair in any sort of clothing other than a saggy baseball uniform, and the man looked mighty awkward in a sweater and slacks, with what remained of his hair combed for possibly the first time ever.

"I gotta fill up my retirement somehow," Greeny said. "I got bounced out of the first round thanks to some young punk who got lucky."

"So why did the Cannons fire you?" Ben asked him as Spike selected his starting lineup from his old Guardians teammates. "I hope it had nothing to do with what I did in '02."

"Naw, it wasn't that. They got a bunch of stat geeks running the front office now. They ran some numbers on me and found out that I spent the most time arguing, ordered the most bean balls, and handed out more fines for dripping water all over the damn clubhouse than any other manager. Then they claimed that any prospect I taught immediately got seventy-five percent worse. Bunch of garbage. My son bought me this APBA game after I got canned and I re-did the 2004 season and we won the damn Series in five games. All right, kid," he said to Jake, "I'm gonna help you take this tournament." He looked across the table at Darla Volume. "Young lady, who's your co-manager?"

"Thanks but no thanks on that sad concept," Darla said, rolling her eyes. "I don't need someone looking over my shoulder. If it takes more than one person's brain cells to win this game, I just feel sad for you."

Ben sorted his 1994 Salt Lake Salt Licks out in front of him, more than a little distracted by the media goofballs hovering behind Spike Vail. The rest of the crowd was divided neatly between the two games; some people pulled up chairs while others just stood.

"Ha ha, you ready to bring it on, Glinton?" Spike asked as Ben filled in the lineups on the scoresheet. "You're writing down all the right ratings for me, right? I'm seven for fifteen today so far, gotta keep the juices flowing." He winked at one of the cameras.

"We're all set. Your team won a couple more games than mine, so I'll be playing at home, if you don't mind."

"Not at all," Spike said. "It makes no difference to me where we play. I like to bat first, get a few runs on the board before you know what hit you."

"Then go ahead," Ben said. "Want a co-manager?"

"Oh, my lovely wife Shelley will be my light and inspiration," Spike said with ultimate sensitivity, reaching out for his wife's hand. Shelley Vail yawned and checked her watch. (To everyone's shock, the famous baseball player had chosen to marry a thin blonde. Darla Volume stared her down, her disapproval a potent death ray.)

"Roll it up," Ben commanded, taking a deep breath. Instead of just giving his dice a quick and meaningless courtesy rattle, like a hitter waving his bat a bit before settling in to take a pitch, Spike shook them violently and hurled them with brutal velocity into an overturned APBA box. They slammed against one edge and bounced backwards, revealing a 33.

"And my good friend Jim Barnes doubles to lead off the game!" Spike announced in a loud voice, and received some nice applause as he pushed a red disc around first base and onto second. "Slide, Jim, slide!" he yelled, and everyone laughed except Ben and Darla Volume, who had donned her headphones once again and started her game against Jake more or less oblivious to any sounds but those of Kate Bush and any sights other than the player cards in front of her.

Spike wasn't able to score in the first, and in fact his first three innings against Ben produced no runs. Thunder Dunk's completely unstructured, unhosted TV coverage of Spike Vail's doings occasionally caught the Darla/Jake game in one corner of the frame, but never actually went over there. Most of the human speech in the room was to be heard on that side of the table, as Greeny constantly advised Jake on matters of strategy, which the somewhat overawed Jake unfortunately took, becoming absurdly conservative. He and his Dad were far more on the same wavelength managing-wise, but Earl had wanted to get a lot of photos of his son being counseled by a big league play-caller and didn't really notice that the man was tanking the game for Jake.

"Do I really want to give up a run for an out here, sir?" Jake asked Greeny in the top of the fifth. "Her hitter is so slow and weak, I could bring the infield in...."

"No no, kid, trust me on this one," Greeny assured him. "Take the double play possibility. The big inning will kill you. Ever see what happened to the Cannons in the '96 wildcard?"

"I wasn't born then," Jake told him.

"Trust me, it was a nightmare," Greeny said. "Come on, roll those dice, young lady. The kid's playing his infield deep. Do your worst."

Darla read Greeny's lips, turning the volume on her CD player up a little louder, and spilled a 62 onto the playing field. The ball was knocked to third base, a run scored, and one out was safely secured. The next batter, though, quickly doubled.

"Oh no!" Jake said, slapping his forehead. "It backfired!"

"Not your fault," Greeny said. "You gotta play the percentages."

"I think the percentages were the other way," Jake insisted as Darla jotted down the new stats on the scoresheet.

Darla cruised into the ninth leading 4 to 1. Jake got two runners on base and wanted to bring in a man with a lousy on-base percentage but some potent power to pinch hit. Greeny almost had a fit.

"This girl ain't got no serious closer," Greeny advised. "Who is it, Richard Berg? Coached him in the minors for six months. Had a fast ball like pushing a marble through cottage cheese. You can chip away for a while. Don't bring in some lunkhead who won't get anyone over to third."

"Okay, Greeny, sir," Jake obeyed. The decision ended the game in less than sixty seconds.

"Snails, double snails, and snail tails with pistachio ice cream!" Jake erupted, stamping his feet. "I played it too safe!"

" got too risky," Greeny said, a statement with more logical holes than there were words in the sentence. (It was this exact statement, actually, that had finally gotten him fired from the Cannons.) Earl collected Jake and took him outside briefly to try to impart some fatherly knowledge about life and loss. He blew it as usual, and decided to just buy Jake some new constellation observation software instead. He was pretty sure he could find some in Reno.

So the semi-finals came down to just Ben and Spike Vail. Darla couldn't be bothered to stick around and watch, choosing instead to nibble on some carrot sticks in the corner to wait for the finals, but everyone else in the conference center saw everything that happened, including The Incident.

Ben's strategy of having no strategy whatsoever had been working beautifully once again. He entered the seventh inning up 8-6 after a few very stressful innings in which his pitchers just couldn't slam the door with two outs, after his hitters had almost buried Vail for good. Spike's managerial methods consisted entirely of swinging for the fences every time, playing for the three-run homer. He was good enough to provide one himself in the sixth, his card once again performing up to the ridiculous standard set by his actual body. When he rolled his 66 and the crowd cheered, Spike jumped up and did twenty jumping jacks. He asked his wife to count them out, and she did the first seven half-heartedly before excusing herself to go buy some Tic Tacs. Spike jumped on, accidentally knocking Roy in the face on number twenty when Roy leaned forward to note the score of the game for his notes. Ben sat there and stewed. He turned to Harold as Spike accepted the crowd's congratulations

"All right, Harold, I need you to jump in here if I really need to make a decision to save myself," he said. "I've been on auto-pilot for a lot of innings now. I'm getting itchy to do something."

"I don't know, Ben, I think you should trust the whole hands-off thing," Harold said. "I'll bet Spike beats himself somehow. I've noticed that he doesn't ever put in any reliever who's pitched well against him in real life. He should have put Steve Le Shay in by now, but the poor guy's rotting in the envelope. This could really work for you."

The seventh inning was scoreless, with Spike Vail's card failing to come through with a man on third. The crowd oohed and aahed as Ben's starter, still in the game, battling on through inning after inning, struck him out.

"Must have been a bee on me or something," Spike joked. "You'll see me again at the plate, though, oh yeah."

Ben led off the bottom of the eighth with a pair of walks, and Spike, already down by two runs, became noticeably worried. He decided to insert his third reliever of the game—the supposedly forgotten Steve Le Shay.

"Hey, remember that time Le Shay got you to pop out in the 2000 Series?" Ben asked Spike. "Wow, I thought you were going to charge the mound. That was the infamous 0 for 7 game, wasn't it?"

"I remember," Spike said, trying to keep it light. "My elbow was killing me that night, oh yeah."

"I think you've gone something like 4 for 40 against ole S.S. these past two years," Ben said.

"4 for 42," Jake said from behind him. The APBA folk which had let him through to stand close to the action voiced their confirmation of this critical statistic.

Spike had taken Le Shay's card halfway out of the envelope, but then he slid it back inside. "I'm not liking the lack of a Z on that card," he told the closest camera. "Better get more of a control guy in there to shut this inning down."

Seventeen hundred miles away, the real Steve Le Shay, having just been bombarded on the mound in a 1 p.m. game against New Jersey, stood in his otherwise empty locker room, toweling off and watching the tournament. "You moron!" he shouted at the screen. "You're gonna fall for the cheapest reverse psychology ruse in the history of mankind?! Put me in the game, you overpaid clown! That's Ben Glinton talking to you! You're getting outsmarted by BEN GLINTON!!"

Ben made a note of Spike's new pitcher, Chris Palermo, on the scoresheet, and nodded knowingly to Harold, who tried to keep his face neutral. There was some concerned mumbling in the crowd. Spike seemed to reconsider his choice at the last second, but his pride wouldn't let him be anything other than what he was. He stuck with Palermo.

"Oh, I am so gonna throw a slider right at your face the next time you get in that batter's box!" Steve Le Shay cried to the little Spike Vail on TV set. "You think Curse Williger's a dangerous pitcher?! Let's play a little ShayBall, you bonehead!"

"Roll those dice, Glinton," Spike said, leaning forward. "Do it to it."

Chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka. Ben spilled the dice out onto the field. The white one skittered all the way across it and landed an inch in front of Spike's chest.

"A 51 on Lance Haffner's card becomes a....41," Ben said, suddenly very concerned, as any board result over 35 could mean a very strange kind of trouble. "What happened? What happened?"

Both he and Spike made a grab for the results booklet. Spike got there first and he raised his arms in the air. "Triple play, boyo!" he erupted. "Triple play! Manager's best friend! Third to short to first, that's three outs and you are done in the ninth!"

The crowd stomped, laughed, hooted, even belched at this amazing APBA rarity. Ben shook his head and looked at Harold.

"Okay, so anything I try is a bad idea," he said. "I get it now."

Back east, Steve Le Shay bit into his towel. "You still should've put me in there, Vail," he said. "I would've just struck everybody out, niiiiiiiiiiiiiiice and slow."

His bench coach walked in. "Talking to the TV again," he said disgustedly. "That's it, Le Shay. You are so being sent down tomorrow."

At the Lucky Ape, Spike sent for a bottle of spring water before the bottom of the ninth began. The Cyclops Cola rep standing nearby cried a little inside.

"Two runs, Spike, surely you can get two measly runs," Ben teased. "Could you imagine losing to Ben Glinton? The biggest idiot in baseball history? Oof, I wouldn't want to be you when I go home tonight."

"Okay, Blemish, watch this," Spike said.


Infield single.


Single to right.

"Okay, Harold," Ben said out of the side of his mouth. "I'm getting Lee Harris out of this game. He's shot."

"Three of his runs were unearned," Harold said. "Come on, Ben, give him just one more batter. You have a good match-up, arm-wise."

"Vail's on deck, Pillick!" Ben hissed. "I need an out right now!"

"One more," Harold pleaded. "Ben, every second you don't make a decision is one more step towards not having to give away twenty thousand dollars."

Ben held his tongue. Spike sent Wayne Poniwaz into the batter's box. He thrust the dice into the overturned APBA box with more obnoxious force than he ever had, as if he were trying to punish the tiny suckers for making him sweat this one out.

This was The Incident, as seen on live TV in twenty-one states:

The red die smashed into the box and ricocheted back towards Spike. His mouth was partially open when the object in question began its aggressive trajectory back towards him. He had no time to react. Slow motion instant replays of the television image showed a tiny red blur entering his mouth. He swallowed out of pure reflex. The die vanished.

Silence. No one was sure exactly what had happened, kind of like when the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing of 1983 was announced and the words "Jay Boekelheide" somehow dropped from the presenter's lips instead of "Ben Burtt."

"Did....did you just swallow that?" Ben asked.

Spike looked at him and blinked once, twice, three times. "Uh-huh," he said queasily.

"You're not supposed to do that," Jake told him.

Spike put his hands on the edge of the cafeteria table and gripped it tightly, his burly arms bulging. "There's been...some lodging," he croaked in a deeply strange voice. It kind of sounded like a squishy banana had gotten stuck in a garbage disposal. His wife felt his forehead.

"You, ah, you gonna be okay there, Spikey?" Ben asked. Someone leaned into Spike's face and snapped a photograph. His eyes did a drunken cartwheel in their sockets.

"Need to lie down. Me. Now." Spike got up and his wife and his agent snuck under his arms to support him. He didn't do so hot when it came to walking under his own power, so he was mostly just dragged aside.

As the spectators all around whispered and clasped their hands together in concern, a stretcher appeared out of nowhere, rolled forward by the Lucky Ape's ubiquitous Toddy. They'd had a stretcher ready to go ever since some of the Quack Quack quarter slots in the lobby delivered a series of near-fatal electrical shocks to a church youth group from Ely. Spike was helped onto it as the media swarmed around, jamming microphones in his face. Quite unnecessarily, Todd closed the stretcher's arm and head clamps and Spike was more or less immobilized.

"We'll have an ambulance outside in three minutes!" Toddy announced. "I need some room to move him, people, let's form a gap, let's form a gap!"

"Glurp," Spike burped. A reporter from a local station bent over him and asked him if he regretted skipping out on his team's game in Texas to be here today. Roy even tried to get a question in, but as usual when in the presence of even the most mildly prominent athletes, he couldn't get his words out correctly and wound up emitting only the following string of completely useless syllables: "Hey, yes, okay, nice."

The gap that Toddy had demanded was formed and the stretcher was rolled hurriedly through it. Ever the lionheart, Spike managed to raise his forearm into the air, giving the crowd a defiant thumbs-up. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, a triumphant violin and brass combination played a hero's theme. There was applause, and perhaps a little poorly contained laughter. Some of Spike's most diehard fans followed him out into the lobby, as did all of the television cameras. As he slipped into a wholly gratuitous unconsciousness, he found the strength to retreat into a wondrous fantasy world where he ruled a race of elfin warlocks engaged in a never-ending battle against the Sinister Lemon People of Clavius-9. It was a scenario he often embraced when confronted by an instance of even momentary failure. The golden land of Fancytown was a sweet and forgiving place to be. After his departure, the conference center got a lot quieter, and more hospitable in general.

"Well, what happens now?" Jake asked everyone around him, looking from face to face for an answer.

"I think we have ourselves a forfeit," someone in the crowd said. "I think Glinton wins."

"You're right," said Earl. "The tournaments Jake and I have played in, if someone can't finish, they forfeit the game."

"Glinton wins!" shouted a fellow wearing an APBA T-shirt and an APBA ball cap. The assuredness of his tone seemed to convince the hundred or so people left in the room of his statement's validity, and Harold suddenly grabbed Ben's arm and lifted it skyward, grinning.

"I'll take whatever I can get!" Ben said, the sentiment of a true warrior. He got to his feet and high-fived everyone in the Collective and then everyone standing behind them. The more games he won, the more people had started to warm up to him. He may have destroyed the Cannons' 2002 season, but to the folks in the room, he seemed smaller and goofier in person, just like somebody off the street—a dim-witted next door neighbor, maybe, or a twelve year old who still believed in Santa Claus. His commonness made him at least fifty percent less odious.

"All right," Darla Volume said in a bored voice from two cafeteria tables over, "let's not waste too much time before we start the final game. I do, like, have a life to lead outside the Lucky Ape Hotel and Casino."

"Twenty minutes, twenty minutes till the championship game!" announced the Cyclops Cola rep, who seemed on the surface to have really gotten into the APBA vibe over the past hour or so. Little did anyone realize he had merely seen an opportunity to take a few bets on the increasingly intense action, seizing the chance in true corporate fashion to line his pockets with the money of innocents.

Everyone dispersed for a breath of fresh air. Ben went to the bathroom around the corner from the front desk. to splash some cold water on his face. When he emerged into the lobby again, Harold, Templeton, Earl, Jake, and Roy were waiting for him silently. They all looked very worried.

"Okay," Ben said, exhaling, "who's got those fifty cents I asked for?"

As Templeton dug out two quarters from his slacks, Harold glanced anxiously at the conference center, where people were already filing back in to get the best possible view of the upcoming action. "Ben, even if you somehow made The Call and somehow got the money, you told everyone it would be paid out in cash as soon as the final game was over. How—"

"Thank you, Emmitt," Ben said, interrupting Harold and accepting the coins. "I'm going to walk over to that pay phone in the corner now. Feel free to follow me if you wish. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers as I do this. And cross as many fingers as you can afford to."

Ben knew that he would chicken out if he took any time to think of what he was about to do, so he went to the pay phone briskly, so briskly he almost left the rest of the Collective in the dust. They caught up to him and gave him all of thirty-six inches of breathing space as he dialed a number from heart. Roy's pen was poised above a fresh notepad, ready to transcribe. He had realized a half hour ago that the events which had taken place since one o'clock would in all likelihood comprise about fifty percent of Ben's biography, and maybe more than that if things just kept getting weirder.

Someone on the other end of the line answered Ben's call.

"Hi, it's me," Ben said, not even having to give his name. "Um....I'm in a bit of a spot. I need money. Nineteen th—ah, twenty-two thousand dollars. In twenty dollar bills." He listened for a moment. "Yes," he said in response to a simple question. To another he answered yes a second time. He then gave the location of the pay phone, listened for another ten seconds, and said, "I understand." Then, with no further ado, he hung up the phone and turned to the Collective, shrugging.

Earl was flabbergasted. "That's it, Ben? There's no second call?"

"Yeah, basically," Ben said. "Whoo, that took a lot out of me."

"How in the world is that going to amount to anything?" Harold asked. "It sure didn't seem—"

"Wait for it," Ben stopped him, holding up an index finger and turning toward the front entrance. The ticking of Templeton's watch seemed very loud indeed.

Through the glass doors and into the lobby came a man they had seen before. It was Phineus! Now wearing dark sunglasses, he walked stiffly over to Ben, carrying a small brown valise. Sometime between his icy 9-3 first round victory in the tournament and now, he had re-slicked his hair and had his shoes shined. His unreadable face was like a blank chalkboard, or, more specifically, the fancy kind that you could write on with a felt-tipped marker and erase with your shirt sleeve if you wanted.

"Mr. Cloud wishes you a pleasant day," Phineus said, seeming bored. He set the valise at Ben's feet, turned, and walked away. Thinking of the Roy vs. Grog Streep incident, the others had to try hard to remember the last time so many people had appeared from nowhere to offer up big hunks of cash for no immediately apparent reason. The last they saw of Phineus, his ankles were being nipped at by some old lady's yipping Chihuahua even as he tried to help her and her gigantic pair of cello cases through the doors under her crushing criticism of his upper arm strength.

Ben picked up the valise and opened it. He took out two stacks of twenty dollar bills, bound in rubber hands with cheery red polka dots on them.

"Problem solved," he said. "Now, who's got the team envelope for the 2002 Cannons? I think it's time I started thinking about setting a starting lineup."

Earl began to take the envelope from his breast pocket, but Templeton stopped him.

"Ah....Ben?" he said.


"...and that's why Phineus wasn't wearing any socks today, and hasn't been physically able to since that night in Dayton," Ben finished. He handed the money to Templeton for safekeeping, then clapped his hands in front of him as he turned to the conference center once again. "Now who's going to be my co-manager so we can take the prize that's rightfully ours? Harold, are you game again?"

"Sure, Ben," Harold said, flattered. "I'm with you all the way. But if there's a chance that the director of the Bronx Zoo might show up and take the money back—"

"If you'd listened closely to what I just told you, Harold, you'd realize that he's not ever going to be a problem for us, if he knows what's good for him," Ben said. "Now, I am completely focused on winning just one more game of APBA Baseball to take us to the promised land. Anyone who's got his mind on other things should just head off to the casino for some watered-down ginger ale and germ-filled coin cups. Are we all together?"

They were. Ben Glinton, Emmitt Templeton, Earl Peavey, Jake Peavey, Roy Skinla, and Grassy Pete Pillick went forward to make their final stand.

21. The Ending in Which Everything Turns Out Relatively Okay for Everybody, but Just Relatively

As hard as it might be to believe, the championship game went right down to the wire.

4-3 was the ninth inning score, on the edge of their seats were the spectators, and agonizingly silent was the room as Ben stared defeat in the face with just three outs left before the tournament would officially belong to the ages. It wasn't that his old teammates, the 2002 Cannons whom he'd failed so badly four years before, hadn't played well. Curse Williger had pitched solidly and gotten himself out of a couple of tight jams, coming up with big strikeouts at the most opportune moments, and Joe Costa had batted as heroically than his .332 average that year dictated. And it wasn't that Ben's own managerial incompetence had caused any problems—Harold had made darn sure never to say anything in his ear that even remotely sounded like a suggestion to make a move of any kind. Mostly it was Darla Volume and her specially created San Andreas Suffragettes, a fictional women's team set she'd had carefully made a couple of weeks before by an APBA specialist back in her home city of East Whippany, that put Ben's back against a very painful wall. The Suffragettes all bore the names of oppressed and iconoclastic women throughout American history; Harriet Tubman had pitched seven strong innings against the Cannons before giving way to fierce set-up artist Emma Goldman, while Beryl Markham and Margaret Bourke-White had come through with clutch singles to give Darla the lead since the fourth. Ben could feel his heart drop into his feet when Darla brought out her biggest gun, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to close out the ninth with her gaudy A & C rating. The crowd in the conference center felt the chances of Ben being able to tie the game sink from slim to virtually none. Those who weren't deeply infatuated with Darla Volume and who would gladly do her every bidding found themselves genuinely saddened by the obvious impending outcome of Ben's Cinderella run for the grand prize. Only one TV camera remained, not even one operated by Thunder Dunk. This camera was operated by a nineteen year old sophomore from Reno Community College as part of a live feed back to the campus, where the only one watching the proceedings was his course advisor. Thunder Dunk had cleared out as soon as Spike Vail went down, following him throughout his brief stay in the hospital and his wheelchair-bound exit from same. He was cleared to return to his team immediately and vowed to return to the APBA table as soon as his trachea felt a little better. Thunder Dunk decided that sticking around to hear Ben's promised revelations about game seven of the 2002 Series would not be quite as compelling to the average viewer as tape-delayed coverage of the 2006 Professional Water Polo Skills Challenge, so they switched over to that as soon as Spike disappeared into a stretch limo and left Reno altogether.

"Harold, I don't think I can get Jason on base against this Anne Lindbergh freak," Ben said in an aside to his co-manager near the end, referring to Jason Blaze. "It's time to get creative."

"You might be right," Harold said, biting his fingernails. Templeton, Earl, Jake, and Roy were right beside him. "But that injury to Dan Patterson, and you keeping yourself on the bench, has really made the team thin. No one else can hit worth a lick."

In the crowd, someone coughed. Across the table, Darla Volume adjusted the treble controls on her portable CD player. She stifled a yawn and restrained herself from jotting down some notes about how she wanted to divvy up her prize money. It seemed like every time she turned around, there was a new charity devoted to providing women filmmakers with affordable housing, and they were all knocking at her door.

Ben got a crazy gleam in his eye. He picked up the Cannons' team envelope and blew into it. "I'm making a decision," he said. "I just don't have nothing to lose anymore."

Harold sat up straight quickly, "Oh gosh, oh gosh...let me think just a second...we're not on the clock here..."

The crowd murmured in fear as Ben pulled from the team envelope the card of one Harold Pillick.

"What are you doing, Ben?" Harold asked, aghast. "That's my card! That's my card!"

"I know, Harold," he said. "I have faith in you." He began to write Harold's name into the lineup. Darla seemed disinterested. She shook her dice gently to keep her wrist in practice.

"I know what he's doing!" Templeton whispered to Earl. "It just might work!"

Ben rolled his dice. They gave him a 64.

Harold grinned.

"Batter hit by the pitch," Ben said, reading from the Bases Empty chart. "Harold takes first!"

As he pushed a base runner toward first base, the crowd applauded. Harold Pillick had led his league in exactly one category during his lifetime: the ratio of getting plunked to total plate appearances, and his APBA card reflected this in spades. No one had ever been sure why Harold had been so damn adept at drawing pitches right into his puny side or even at his bubble head, since there was nothing at all unusual about his stance, and he never really even figured out how to work a count during his brief stay in the bigs. Some baseball experts had theorized—strictly in hushed tones among themselves—that Harold had possessed something called The Bullying Bastard Factor. That is, whenever he stepped into the box, he presented an image of such physical weakness and ineptitude that pitchers just couldn't resist sending one off his skeleton, simply to be mean.

"Thanks, Ben," Harold said, humbled. "I never knew you believed in me a little."

"Don't mention it, pal," Ben replied. "It's time you got some payback for keeping me on the straight and narrow these past few years. All right, who do we have next? Clyde Ringo? Oh boy. Okay, okay, no need to panic. He had a few hits in '02, right? I must have missed seeing them somehow, but I seem to recall him coming back to the dugout sometimes with a smile on his face. Didn't he? Just a few times, wasn't he smiling?"

"Easy, Ben," Roy said. "Hold on."

"Right, hold on," he said, and put his dice back in their maternal shaker. He spilled them out on the table again immediately.

Clyde Ringo would have singled, but Anne Morrow Lindbergh's superior pitching rating mathematically reduced his mighty blow to a scrawny fly out to right field. Ben's left eyelid began to twitch. Darla crossed her arms in front of her, getting a very satisfied look on her face.

Now, Ben thought, now was the time to put his own card into the lineup.

If John Kuchar grounded into a double play, the game was over. He had to act now. Harold knew it too. But he did nothing. John had almost never grounded into DPs in 2002, or any other year for that matter. If Ben was going to have faith in Harold Pillick's anemic abilities, he could certainly give a few props to John.


John singled to center! The crowd gasped!

"Are you going to try to send your little buddy there over to third?" Darla asked. "Do you want to know Helen Keller's arm rating?"

"I don't need to know Helen Keller's sad, tired arm rating," Ben challenged her. "My pal Harold is going to third, all right. Do the calculations, sister."

Darla consulted the Master symbols, and the odds of Harold's successful slide into third base, based on his speed versus Helen Keller's bony but probably underrated cannon, were figured in seconds. They were not so hot. Harold had never possessed much horsepower. Ben shook his dice anyway and began to tilt his wrist.

"Don't do it!" someone in the crowd said, unable to help themselves. "Suicide!"

Too late. The dice came out. Darla Volume's cool exterior cracked just a hair when she realized that Harold was not only safe, but safe by a country mile.

"I did it!" Harold shouted, slamming a hand onto the cafeteria table. "So that's what it feels like to make it to third on a single to center!"

"I never had any doubt," Ben said firmly as the little men inside his brain quickly shoveled the fifty-seven pounds of doubt he'd actually had into a dark pit somewhere near his left ear so no Feds snooping around would ever find it. "One out, tying run on third, Darla. Looks like Mrs. Lindbergh could write some fine Peter Rabbit books, but she can't slam the door on Lexington's second favorite baseball team."

"You're thinking of Beatrix Potter," Jake said.

Finally, the moment Ben had been waiting for had arrived. There was no more time to muck around with destiny. He reached into the Cannons' envelope and took his own card out.

"Now entering the game as a pinch hitter, number 31, Benjamin Doris Glinton of Mount Airy, Maryland," Ben announced, and there was a smattering of applause. Darla's eyes dropped ever so briefly to her roster of Suffragettes, which she had spread out on the cafeteria table for easy consultation. She made no move to make a pitching change, confident that Ben had no particular edge over Mrs. Lindbergh. And boy, was she ever right.

"I'll be playing the infield deep," Darla said. "For the double play. Do I small cigar smoke? I will absolutely freak if someone's smoking a cigar within five hundred feet of this room."

"Okay, Ben," Harold said softly, leaning in extra close, "I know you're not going to want to hear this, but the situation has never been more perfect for a squ—"

"I don't want to hear it," Ben interrupted.

"Yeah, but a squee—"

"Silence, Harold."

"I know, Ben, but jeez, will you just lis—"


"Sure, you want to get a big hit and bring me home, but mathematically, I'm saying, you really have to be open to bun—"

"Open to bunnies?" Ben asked. "Of course I am. How could I not be? They're gray and furry and adorable."

Harold hung his head. "Ben....a squeeze play....even if it fails, you have such a good hitter on deck...John will be on second...."

"Harold," Ben said, "I don't care if Secretariat will be on second base and home plate is made out of hay. I don't bunt. No real man bunts, ever. I didn't drive across most of this country in a rolling cheese grater to stick myself into the lineup and not take a swing at the fences. Fergus Hibbert assured me that the printing error on my card gives me a better shot at winning this game for us than usual. So I'm gonna take it. You only live once. Everything's aligned perfectly for the first time ever."

Harold fell silent, and the others in the Collective uttered not a word. Greeny St. Clair was about to say something incredibly negative, but he decided it would be far easier to simply harangue his wife with his objectionable opinions later in the evening.

"Printing error?" Toddy the desk clerk asked from the middle of the crowd. "I know nothing of this game, but that doesn't seem completely fair. Maybe we should discuss the validity of Mr. Glinton's—"

"Here comes your pitch, Darla," Ben said, as the chicka-chicka-chicka of his dice drowned Toddy out. "I'm going to send it into the cheap seats in left for my Cannons, for Greeny St. Clair, for Curse Williger, for Rick Nippthorpe, and for my friends who made it here with me today. I hope you don't mind. When the homerun is official, please deposit your trash in the proper receptacle and exit through the doors at the back of the room."

The sole camera in the room zoomed slowly in on Ben's face as his mind filled with images of touching home plate and being hoisted into the air by so many of the teammates whom he would probably never see again in this lifetime, of people pouring out of the stands to celebrate everything he had ever tried to give to the game of baseball, of the home scoreboard lighting up like a Christmas tree, spelling out the words WE WIN!!!! again and again before letting all remaining fans know that they'd get twenty-five percent off a large pizza from King Saucy's with the presentation of their ticket stub, limit four toppings. Darla Volume pressed STOP on her CD player, removed her headphones, and watched, her hands clenching subconsciously into gentle fists.

The dice tumbled out onto the table. The red die showed a 1—half of an 11, which would end the game with an extra base hit of virtually any kind. The white one, though...the white one...

"A 2," Jake said, whistling. "Uh-oh."

"The 12 becomes a 25 on his card," Ivo from Chechnya told everyone, looking over Ben's shoulder.

"Double play, second to short to first," Darla said. "I'll take that nineteen thousand dollars now."

"GYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHDOP!!!!!!" Ben screamed, leaping up from the table, his face red as a beet, his eyes practically bungee-jumping out of their sockets. With one quick whipping of his head from left to right, his previously undiscovered psychic talents announced themselves in a shrieking line of flame which ignited the walls and rushed in a resounding flume across the conference center. The room filled with high-pitched screams of terror as a stampede began, while Ben walked calmly toward the lectern, sending out wave after wave of hot, deadly fireballs using nothing more than his vengeance-craving brain. One by one, all those who had opposed him were felled by the bright balloons of flame, causing Ben to cackle triumphantly. His lethal power surged within him and soon the entire hotel was nothing more than a charred ruin littered with unidentifiable bodies, leaving him alone in the center of Reno, all sentient creatures vanquished, all old scores settled. Soon, he knew, the armies of the imperialist government would arrive in a fruitless attempt to stop him from claiming the Earth itself with his unrepentant destructive urges. But their helicopters, their tanks, their missiles were no more a harm to Ben Glinton now than the indifferent rain which had begun to fall mournfully from the blood red sky. Just as in the days when he had called himself a mere human and not a lordly merchant of annihilation, there was only one known weapon on the planet powerful enough to stop his thirst for carnage and bring him to his knees: the single tear of a hungry child.

By the time Ben came grudgingly back to reality, Templeton had already taken care of the transfer of the prize money to Darla Volume, who took it with a brief nod and decided to forgo her speech entirely. She hadn't planned on her ultimate victory taking quite this long, so she crumpled up her notes about the sorry state of women in science fiction, stuffed the cash into her purse, and vamoosed before more dweebs could try to verbally paw at her. About thirty people were left in the conference center when Ben began to slowly get to his feet. Earl and Jake had cleared the game away and discreetly disposed of the scoresheet which had recorded the hideous final round loss. Ben took a sip from his can of soda and stood bravely before the few considerate and mildly curious souls who had decided to stick around for his confession.

"Friends," Ben began with a heavy heart, "four years ago in Kentucky, I imploded and ruined the championship series for myself and my teammates. Never before had I committed such atrocious atrocities over the span of a single inning. Obviously, external forces had a massive hand in what happened that night. No one person could ever stage such a thorough meltdown unless he was under the influence of heavy and conflicting medications.

"I have never revealed to anyone, not even my teammates, my true state of mind on that October night," he went on, making sure to look directly into the one operational camera from time to time. "It was pretty darn abnormal, let me tell you. I was becoming very, um, what do you call it, disenchanted with the game of baseball. I had just been through a rough contract negotiation which made me look very selfish to the public, a nagging toe injury had been slowing me down for months, and there were rumors that the Cannons were considering leaving Lexington entirely and splitting their games between Tijuana and wherever it is that they hold Burning Man every year. Nobody seemed to be getting along in the clubhouse even though we were on the verge of winning the title, and that massive art forgery scandal continued to threaten the very integrity of the game.

"In short, a life in baseball had become something far, far different from how I'd imagined it when I was a kid. Sometimes as an adult, too, I had dreams about an innocent sports world where nothing else mattered but the thwack of the bat and the whoop of the ball hitting my mitt as I leapt against the wall in the outfield. On the morning of the seventh game of the series, I was told not only that one of our best players had just been arrested for impersonating a priest, but that we'd all have to wear a big ugly patch on the left shoulder of our uniforms to promote a new reality show called Escape from the Stench. Something in me just snapped. I had no concentration when I took the field that night. My mind was racing. Somehow I knew that this was my last game as a professional no matter what. The realization hit me like a rickshaw full of pies. After the first inning, I was as depressed as I have ever been. All I could think about was how there must be some way to preserve the essence of the great game of baseball and throw out all the lousy distractions and controversies that sucked all the pure enjoyment out of it.

"Do you want to know what was going through my brain during the half hour or so when I ruined everything? I was imagining myself as just a pawn on a wooden board that represented a baseball diamond, being moved around by the roll of dice as two opposing fans had more fun simulating the game than watching it. Everything they wanted out of baseball was right in front of them, including a little Me who had been reduced to my name, my position, and my statistics, and could help either one of them win if they used me just right. Nothing else mattered; not my contract, not my squabbles with my manager, not the naming rights to the stadium I played in, not the re-alignment of our division, not the water pressure problem in our clubhouse which had driven our best pinch hitter into retirement.

"If I had known about the existence of APBA Baseball that night, maybe I would have been able to keep myself from totally losing myself in a fantasy about a game just like it, which I wanted to create myself as soon as I got off the field that night. My life suddenly had more purpose. The baseball I was playing in the late innings of October 21st seemed like a fraud to me, and I became consumed with getting back to its purity, even if it was only in board game form. In the end, I suppose I just retired mentally a couple of innings too soon, and the Cannons paid a big price for it. That's pretty much the extent of my explanation, I guess, and it's mighty weak one, I know, but there it is.

"Now I stand here before you today a failure all over again, but this time I've failed at baseball as it really should be. Here in this poorly ventilated conference center, every player represented by these little cards is enthusiastic, team-oriented, and giving his all day after day not for money, but for the love of the sport. No one is demanding any raises or trades, or refusing to play a new position, or embarrassing themselves in public, and best of all, no one ever really has to retire. The best and the brightest play on as long as we want to manage them, oblivious to the calendar, no matter what the years are doing to us personally. Even the ones who probably had no business ever being issued a uniform to begin with, like my friend Harold here, get to keep trying to earn the fans' respect. And they play under a cloudless sky, without endless commercial breaks, and having no conception of what a labor strike is, much less a six hundred-dollar-a-night hooker who manages to steal all a team's signals and get videotape of a certain pitcher, whose name won't be dragged through the mud here, fondling grape gelatin while wearing a mermaid outfit.

"In short, friends, very few of us baseball players should ever have been anything more than a hopeful APBA card ready to serve whatever manager comes along on a Sunday afternoon to simulate the match-up of his dreams. You can keep hating Ben Glinton the man and the moron, but please give this Ben Glinton"—here he held up his card to the crowd—"a chance to redeem himself whenever you can. He's not a statistical giant, but he's perfect in his own way, and he'll do his best to win your game for you, maybe not with his speed or his defense, but with one key swing on a certain fortunate roll of the dice. Whatever you do, keep rolling them, because every time APBA Baseball is set up on a tabletop, the sport becomes the perfect daydream it can never quite be in real life, and people need all the daydreams they can get."

Applause, not angry jeers, were what followed Ben out of the Lucky Ape at 5:48 p.m. that muggy Reno day. For the first time in a long time, he was able to hold his head high as he left a baseball competition, having moved everyone with his speech. It would be a good ten to twelve minutes before the gamers in the room started to figure out just how truly shaky his reasoning, his logic, and even his vocabulary had truly been, and why the only part of the speech that held any honest weight whatsoever had been the pro-APBA part. Everything else he had myopically spouted about why he had blighted the game in 2002 quickly started to seem like total compost. But he was long gone by then, his friends following him respectfully as he strode out of the hotel, so dazzled by the golden moment that Ben's pre-tournament reminder to swipe all the pretzels they could on the way out was entirely forgotten.

"So he took his freaking jersey off in the middle of a freaking play because he couldn't concentrate?" Toddy asked Greeny St. Clair. "That's the explanation? Yeah, yeah, that makes a hell of a lot of sense."

Outside on the sidewalk, the Collective stood in the late afternoon light and mused about this and that for a time, feeling relieved, cleansed, and happy to have met so many people who shared their passion for a hobby that now and forever would unite them no matter where they dispersed to, and all the while costing just a fraction of other pursuits like woodworking or drug addiction. The bond they now felt with each other and their fellow APBAheads back inside the hotel would last long after the janitorial staff had swept up the conference center and the Lucky Ape had gone completely bankrupt, its board of directors fired wholesale after their curious decision to change the name of the place to The Tower of Lies and Nothingness.

"Fellas, you should feel free to stay the night in this swingin' town and enjoy all it has to offer," Ben said to his friends, "but I don't think I can join you. This whole experience has left me with the need to do...something. And go....somewhere. I'm tired but wide awake, if you know what I'm saying. I can't explain it, but I want to keep moving."

"We understand, Ben," Earl said, putting his arm around his son. "Jake and I are going down the street to rent a car. I'd really like him to see the Hoover Dam before we head back to Pennsylvania. We're not sure what it is about a big dam that attracts us, or makes us feel so obligated to drive all the way out there to look at it, but so many brochures keep telling us that we should go, I guess we will."

"Yeah, I've been there three times, and I can't for the life of me figure out why," Harold said. "I's just a big dam. Weird."

"Oh well. I guess we'll see everybody in Harrisburg soon, right? Ben, are we going to keep having APBA night in your apartment?"

"Maybe not in my apartment, since I think the wrecking ball should have reduced it to pudding by now," Ben said. "But we'll figure something out."

"So long, Mr. Glinton," Jake said, donning his irregular sunglasses once again. "Thanks for the awesome bus ride. That was the best time I ever had!"

"Later, Jake. Keep an eye on your Pa."

Earl and the boy walked off down the sidewalk companionably. Ben turned to Templeton.

"So, Emmitt," he said. "What are your plans? Wanna take a chance on some aimless western wandering?"

"No thanks, Ben," came the reply. "I've actually arranged to get a ride out to San Jose."

"San Jose? What for?"

Bashfully, Templeton turned his head toward the end of the block, where a large, disturbingly familiar RV was parked at the curb. Standing in front of it were Red and Shorty from the Strat-O-Matic gang. Arms crossed, they nodded curtly in the Collective's direction. Red tried to spit intimidatingly on the sidewalk but it kind of just dribbled out awkwardly, missing the pavement by a foot and landing on a passing caterpillar.

"What are they doing here?" Harold asked. "What did they do, follow us?"

"They just stopped here on their way to California to play a little Keno, and I happened to see them in the lobby during the break," Templeton said. "We got to talking, and...ah, the thing is..."

"No, Emmitt, no," Ben said, horror-struck. "You're not thinking of...of crossing to the other side, are you?"

Templeton took a few steps in the direction of the RV. "I've been playing APBA for almost thirty years," he explained. "These gentlemen showed me some of their card sets....I just thought it might be a nice change...just for a see what sort of different ideas another game might have..."

"Holy smoke, if Earl turns around now and his innocent eyes see what you're contemplating," Ben said, "he'll melt into heartbroken icky blue goo right here on the sidewalk. But first he'll get your books banned from every library in America. Oh, Emmitt. The humanity."

"I'll be back in Harrisburg soon, and I'll have all sorts of tales to tell," Templeton assuaged them, continuing to inch away toward the Others like a thief in the night. "We'll all share a good laugh over it."

"This conversation never existed," Ben said. "I only hope we'll be able to recognize you when you knock on our door again."

Templeton chuckled and walked on. Red opened the door for him and the famous writer climbed aboard, waving back at Ben and smiling. The Strat-O-Matics smirked and disappeared inside their Strat-O-Matic-smelling vehicle, which coughed out Strat-O-Matic-colored exhaust as it rumbled down the street toward whatever demented Strat-O-Matic destiny lay in store for them.

"Were you taking notes on that, Roy?" Ben asked. "You heard Emmitt; he turned his back on the game which brought him here and told us all to go suck on a shovel. That's a direct quote, too. Roy? Roy?"

Ben and Harold turned this way and that, but Roy was nowhere to be seen. At least, at first. Finally they saw someone who looked very much like him across the street, leaning against a severely dented and bruised green station wagon and engaged in a most amorous embrace with a member of the opposite sex.

"You have GOT to be YANKING my YAM," Ben stuttered as their initial identification of the target was confirmed when Roy's notebook fell out of his back pocket, totally unnoticed. Darla Volume's passionate kisses jostled Roy this way and that and it was all the poor guy could do to stay on his feet and not flop helplessly backwards on the station wagon's hood.

"Way to go, Roy!" Harold heard himself shout, and the two lovebirds separated for the briefest of moments. Roy gave Ben and Harold a thumbs-up and apologized briefly to Darla for hitting the pause button on their public display of whatever the hell it was they could possibly be doing in a universe that was supposedly governed by immutable laws and reason.

"Hey, guys!" Roy yelled over the sound of the passing traffic. "I finally got a date! Darla actually likes unmanly men! She says I'm more like a woman than anyone who showed up at the tournament! We're going to spend some time together, if it's okay with you!"

"Sure, Roy!" Ben yelled back. "Just don't forget to finish the biography!"

"Oh, I won't, Ben! Darla says she wants to look it over to make sure I'm not giving you the benefit of a disgusting masculine bias, and then I'll have the first draft ready for you by the time I get back to Harrisburg!"

"Well, there goes that book down the toilet," Ben said out of the side of his mouth. Across the street, Darla grabbed Roy again and smooshed her angry, predatory lips against his, causing constellations to explode in his head, fireworks to detonate in his heart, and Christmas to be declared a year-round holiday in his tingling toes. He held on for dear life as Darla claimed him as her love muffin, and tried his damnedest to blot out any recollections of the nature footage he once saw in junior high school of what female black widows did to their mates. She eventually let him go just long enough to shove him in the passenger's seat of her beater and drive them away. The bumper stickers on the back of the station wagon insulted everything from the current presidential administration to the simple act of combing one's hair.

"I guess that leaves just you and me, champ," Ben said to Harold.

"Yeah, looks like," Harold said, rubbing his bald pate, starting to sweat again. "But whatever you feel like doing is fine. I don't have to be back to Deenie yet. We could be like kids on summer vacation or something. Hey, remember that time we had that three-game series in Minnesota, my rookie year? And you took me to the Mall of America and we ate Chinese at the food court and the security guy in Borders thought you stole a copy of Penthouse? That was a great day. Anything like that, I'm in. But we can have a whole forty-eight hours of it!"

"You're good people, Pillick," Ben said, and shook Harold's hand for the first time in his life. "If I had any money on me whatsoever, or even any prospects for the future at all, I'd take you down to Hamburger Vampire this very minute and go in halfsies with you on a Dripping Fang Salad."

"Oh," Harold said. "You really have nothing left, do you? What are you going to do?"

Ben reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet, tapping it and smiling. "Remember, I did wangle a little extra pocket change when I made The Call. That should be enough to get us back home and to snag myself a temporary room in the second nicest flophouse in Harrisburg. After that...well, I guess yet another miracle could somehow intercede and stave off my otherwise inevitable demise..."

"Ben Glinton! Ben!" a voice cried out, becoming louder as its owner emerged from the shadows of the ape's mouth into the sunlight. They turned to behold a well-muscled man in a white shirt, khaki pants, and hip shades smiling at them and offering his hand to them for the second time in less than a month. It was none other than Thor Rollins from TDSN. "Sorry I got here so late," he said, "but I had no idea that what would happen here today would be totally make. It was the most make thing I've seen in a long time! I was on the edge of my seat!"

"Make, yes, it was definitely make," Ben said. "How did you get here?"

"I was in Vegas for the 2006 pro snowboarding draft and I happened to catch your tournament on the network—well, the Spike Vail part anyway. I gotta say, I was riveted. It was good—Australian rules football good. I hopped on the first ultrasonic passenger jet to Reno. Boys, let me tell you, I've had an idea which is so make, it's gonna blow your socks off and send them screaming down the street with their nostrils on fire. An idea that's gonna give TDSN a virtual stranglehold over that elusive 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Tuesday time slot which I've been trying to figure out for years. An idea, by the way, that's gonna score you a not inconsiderable number of Benjamins."

"Speak on, corporate media cow," Ben said. "I'm all ears."


"Welcome back to Thunder Dunk's live coverage of the Autumn Dreams Celebrity APBA Square-Off," Ben said into camera four as his artificially tanned, Armani-suited body turned to his co-anchor. "I'm Ben Glinton here with our color man, Harold Pillick, and when we broke for commercial, the back-and-forth here at Madison Square Garden was getting bookmark-worthy indeed."

"That's right, Ben," Harold said, looking uncomfortable but excited under the hot lights of the stadium. "Roger Daltrey's last gambit to turn things around in the seventh for his Liverpool Heavybricks fell just short when Holly Hunter brought her infield charging in to make a key out at home plate. Now it looks as though Roger's valiant effort to raise ten thousand dollars for his chosen charity, The Thumbless Folk of Chelsea, might come to a crashing end."

"Looks like he's changed his pitcher again," Ben commented as camera five picked up a wide shot of the ornate gaming table, around which two hundred people sat in makeshift bleachers to watch the action. "Curse Williger, what's Roger's rationale here?"

"I'm not real sure, Ben," Curse reported as he roved the sidelines, leaning over the participants' shoulders, "maybe he's thinking that Brian Geisel's XY rating will completely shut Holly's lineup down until he can hand things over to someone with some actual pitching skill, but to me this is a boneheaded mistake. I swear to God, decisions like this one make me want to start slapping people." Viewers at home were treated to a bright flash in the lower right hand corner of their screens as a digital image of Brian Geisel's APBA card materialized out of nowhere, his key ratings flashing orange.

"Do you think Roger's wishing he had played today's game using the '06 Cannons," Ben asked, "so he could have put you on the mound to stifle Holly like you stifled the Ice Eaters twice a couple of weeks ago to get that ugly beast of a championship ring on your finger?"

Curse chuckled. "I don't know, Ben," he said. "I think I may have outperformed myself a little at the end there, and my APBA card would surely pick that up."

Holly Hunter picked up her shaker and emptied its contents onto the table. Two large microphones nudged past her head, irritating the hell out of her, to zero in on the sound of the dice striking the landing pad, the audio cranked way up and tinged with a blatant echo for the TV audience. When the dice came to a stop, showing a 22, the crowd clapped as they had been trained to do and Juan Varga's card appeared on the screen. The number 22 glowed and sparkled and an electronic readout of the appropriate chart result typed itself magically across the screen.

"That's a double to left!" Ben said. "Holly's next base runner will be represented by the star of Thunder Dunk's new hard-hitting drama series about the backroom dealings, locker room clashes, and bedroom love affairs that pulse deep in the heart of America's favorite new TDSN-branded sport, which, as of this moment, is still called 'foot tennis' while the marketing department gets its act together. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Mr. Don Cheadle!"

The crowd applauded as Cheadle, wearing the uniform of Holly's New York Guardians, trotted onto a stretch of green carpet on which a baseball diamond had been reproduced. He touched first base and playfully took a two-step lead, which brought him about halfway to second.

"Is this the beginning of the end for Roger, Harold?" Ben asked. "I figure you have to be looking for a steal attempt here. Holly's proven herself to be a ruthless savage when it comes to being aggressive on the big green beltway."

Harold nodded. "I think your intuition here is correct, Ben. Even with nobody out, she's going to run. And my Broadcast News for today is that it won't be The Piano Holly will play next week, but Mr. David Ogden Stiers as she veers ever closer to the 2006 Celebrity APBA title." A TDSN intern lowered the cue card and Harold breathed an interior sigh of relief that he had gotten the jokes right.

"Let's not jump the gun, Harold," Ben cautioned. "There's still some time left for Roger to redeem himself. And Stiers still has to get past J.K. Rowling in the semis. Looks like there's going to be a quick time-out on the field here as Roger sorts through his roster looking for an answer to his many bullpen troubles, so let's break for sixty seconds for another quick update from our studios in Pittsburgh about the Pool Skimmer Strangler's amazing escape from custody and his abduction of Spike Vail in an attempt to cross the border into Canada. Take it away, Linda."

Roll! the crowd cried as the batter dug in fast,
His heart singing low at the mess of his past
While the pitcher looked in for the cue to attack,
Obsessed with an inning he could never get back.
The dice went forward to make them both new...
The real disappeared, and the impossible shone through.

—From Roy Skinla's poorly received book of poetry,
Caring Has a Voice That Sounds Like Your Eyes,
self-published with financial assistance from the
Independent APBA Collective of Metro Harrisburg
in July of 2019.