Friday, January 30, 2009

The Streak - 16 - Tragedy in the Bronx

Evan sat glumly in the clubhouse, one sock on and one sock off. He'd been the goat on a team of goats in the Yankees' 25th loss in a row, hitting into an unassisted triple play that provoked a gasp of awed dismay from the crowd. He'd played the rest of the game in a mild trance, an insulation against grief and self-reproach. It seemed he'd barely had the will to put one foot ahead of the other, but he did; nor to carry out his ritual gesticulations at the plate and in the field, but he did; nor to gather grounders and throw to first with alacrity and accuracy, but he did. He'd performed mechanically, robotically, keeping at arm's length the worry that he'd fall off the high wire and into the void. He even had a hit, a pointless double to the gap in center field with two outs and no one on in the eighth, down 12-4. Now he saw the press corps coming; the many-limbed, interloping beast. He stood up to face the music.

"Evan!"

"Evan!"

"Evan!"

The noisy gaggle of wide-eyed men and women jostled around him like Third World urchins, mics and mini-cassette recorders out like wanting hands, hectoring him to grace them with the charity of words.

"Evan! How does it feel to be the fifteenth player ever to hit into an unassisted triple play?"

"It's a terrific honor."

Dutiful scribbling, the flashes of cameras.

"Evan!"

"Evan!"

"Evan!"

"Don't print that. It was a joke."

"How does it feel?"

"How does it feel, Evan?"

"I'm going to do what I need to do to get this team back on track and in the right direction."

"Evan!"

"Evan!"

"Evan, does Jim need to change the lineup again?"

"I can't speak for Jim Bosworth. Jim Bosworth is his own man."

"Should he be fired?"

"It's not my time or place to say."

"Do you think you should be batting cleanup again?"

"I'm happy to bat where they put me."

"Evan! What did you think of Chris Bailey's performance today?"

Bailey had lasted five and two-thirds innings, giving up eight runs on ten hits.

"Chris is a great pitcher and he needs to focus on what he needs to do to help this team succeed."

"Evan, the Yankees just broke the record for the longest losing streak in baseball history. Is this the worst team of all time?"

"I don't... I can't –"

"Evan, when will you stop losing?"

"Yeah, Evan! When will the Yankees stop losing?"

"Do you think you'll lose thirty in a row?"

"Yeah. How many games in a row are the Yankees going to lose?"

"Will you lose forty games in a row, Evan? Fifty? Can you lose fifty?"

"Evan: How many games is it possible that you might lose? In a row."

"When will you start winning again, Evan? When will the Yankees win?"

"Yeah. When will you stop losing and start winning?"

"When will it end, Evan?"

"I don't know."

The reporters moved on to Esteban's locker and Evan sat back down on his stool. He picked up his other sock and contemplated it a good, long time. Finally, he lifted his head and saw the television hanging from the clubhouse ceiling. It was tuned to CNN. An indistinct cityscape, helicopter-viewed, punctuated by a deep red fire and its inverted cone of smoke. The crawl said:

    TRAGEDY IN THE BRONX


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The woman ahead of me at the wine store stood a little crooked - not necessarily drunk but precarious, tilted one way at the hips and the other at the shoulders. Like she'd been stacked wrong and this was how she kept from falling down. The man told her the total and she fumbled absently with her wallet. She held it open before her face and considered it a moment, the top of a twenty dollar bill visible above the pocket. She turned to me.

"I'm sorry I'm holding you up."

She'd somehow left a Starbucks cup on the left side of the counter, out of her reach. She stood in place and extended her upper body languorously to drag it over with a wwssshhhh. Finally she was gone and it was my turn and the man made that slight, knowing smile and thanked me for my patience.

When I walked outside she was standing by the door, just standing there beside the door.
I watched an old lady sidestep a splatter of tomato sauce on the sidewalk and stop to gawk at the Pioneer Supermarket window where it said White Rose Muffin Mix, a dollar twenty-nine.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

After months of worrying that Obama would not get elected, now you get the unnerving sense that he can't possibly be President - can he? It's not just the tedious, stubborn challenges to his citizenship, or that, of all things, the fucking swearing in was flubbed. It's this: Can all the pomp and ceremony and ludicrous, fawning deference that's reserved for American presidents really coalesce around him now? Over the past 16 years we've grown accustomed to the President as exalted clown - with Bush, the emperor had no clothes; with Clinton, the emperor had no pants. The elaborate ritual surrounding the office seemed more suited to these farcical figures - they were both versions of the grandiose, infantile King Ubu. It made sense that they had a special airplane, an outsize kitchen staff and guards outside their bedroom door. Part of what Obama brings to the White House is a seriousness, sobriety and prosaic approach - much in evidence in his inaugural address - that we might expect of a great college football coach but not of the occupant of this most curious perch atop our politics. In his life experiences, too, there is more for most Americans to relate to: community organizing (odiously disparaged by Rudy Giuliani at the Republican National Convention), teaching, dropping off the girls at school with a kiss. He is "a guy of the street," but not in the sense the McCain campaign intended. And now he is our president. Can it be true?
The headline on CNN reads: Sky on Fire.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Good Lookin'

I stood in the corner of the locker room pulling clothes onto my damp body. Two men were talking near me, a light-skinned black guy and a darker skinned one, young guys. The light-skinned one was animated, holding forth.

"Man, it's cold out there. I left a bottle of water in my car. I come back and it be frozen solid. Solid!" he said. "I kid you not."

"Word?"

"I ain't even frontin'."

The light-skinned guy's iPhone had fallen out of his gym bag and onto the bench.

"Ya phone," the other one said.

"Yo, good lookin'." He picked it up and thumb-tapped its slick, black monolith-screen a time or two before putting it away.

"How you get home?" he said.

"I take the train. Down at sevenny-deuce."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Among the many great things about Obama's inauguration speech today was his recognition of atheists: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Such Animal

Scott was a compulsive liar and a fat fuck besides. He had straight, brown hair in a bowl cut, bangs and braces. The rosy cheeks and skittish gaze of the serial dissembler. He wore corduroys and big, striped polo shirts and carried around an Adidas bag all the time. Back in the seventh grade we said it meant "all day I dream about sex."

Scott would sooner lie than tell you the time of day. He had a famished ego and he'd scramble and claw like an urchin in Calcutta for the least appetizing scraps of social advantage.

Anything. I been to Sweden. My dad owns a Porsche. Anything at all. I touched a girl's nipple. I was outraged. If someone lies like this, what good is it for anyone to tell the truth? I developed a burning desire to call him out on it some day. I wanted to see him stammer in denial, his protests growing more strident and absurd until the only path remaining was to accept his humiliation - the Truth! - in a baptism of tears. I thought this would be good for him, good for the world; I felt justified and righteous.

One day Scott sidled up to me in the hallway.

"Hey, you like Jimi Hendrix, right?"

"Yeah." I loved Jimi Hendrix with a mighty passion.

"I've got a really rare Hendrix single at home." Everything was always at home.

"What song?"

"No Such Animal."

I'd never heard of this song. Of course, I didn't want Scott to know that. If he knew I didn't know a song he knew, it didn't matter if he'd lied about owning Hendrix's exhumed skull. He'd have beaten me somehow. The title, I figured, he couldn't have invented. I recognized the ring of authentic Jimi Hendrix-title truth. Scott must have read about it somewhere and drummed up this obvious fib. I was a hunter with a big, dumb buck in his sights; I was nearly trembling with eagerness.

"Bring it in."

"What?"

"Bring it in."

"Bring it in where?"

"Bring it in to school. Jesus."

"Why, dontcha believe me?"

"Yeah, Scott. I just wanna see it. Bring it in."

"When?"

"Who the fuck cares when? Tomorrow." I was feeling good about this.

"OK, OK. I'll bring it in." Scott's face seemed a little ashen now. I felt like I'd landed a good first shot. The kill would come soon, and it was gonna be sweet.

I badgered Scott about it later that day. When he didn't bring it in the following morning I reminded him that I absolutely wanted to see it. Why? he asked again, and I just told him I wanted to and that was that.

"You don't believe me," he said.

"I don't know, Scott. If you have it, you can just bring it in, right? I wanna see it."

"You can't borrow it."

"I don't wanna borrow it. I just wanna see it."

This went on for a few days, until I decided to inflict the death blow.

"Scott, let me come over to your house after school. We can go play video games."

"OK," he said warily.

I got off at his bus stop with him that afternoon and walked into his house behind him, through the screen door to the dark and cluttered kitchen. There was no one home.

"Hey," I said, "where's that Hendrix single?"

"Oh, hold on a sec," Scott said, and disappeared upstairs. He walked back down a minute later. "Here, check it out," he said, and handed me a 45-rpm single in a tattered paper sleeve. I scrutinized the label in the sleeve's circular window. Here's what it said:

Jimi Hendrix
NO SUCH ANIMAL
(Hendrix)

I handed it back to him without saying a word and I've never been the same since then.
I stopped at the stop sign getting on the Henry Hudson Parkway headed north and the fucknik right behind me honked his horn. He drove around me as soon as he could and I made sure my middle finger was pressed to the middle of the window as he did. He stared straight ahead, disappointingly. That was the right thing for that type of asshole to do when you think about it. I got on my horn, lamely. Desperately. But he was gone.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The headline sat at the top of my screen and I read and reread it a few times.

"A plane just crashed into the Hudson River," I finally said to no one. Kind of blithely, the way you'd say, "Cold today, boy," or "You know what? I haven't been getting that much spam." The way you say something when you don't know if it should be said. Is it momentous when a plane lands in a river? When an earthquake kills a million in a vague, untouchable place, no one reads that out loud. Is this more like a subway getting stuck, or two planes crashing into towers? I can't tell. It's the fifteenth of January, 2009, and I don't know what's significant anymore.

Murmurs of puzzlement and curiosity. We all navigated to the news, like boats to the wreckage: the fuselage immersed in cold, gray water; tugs and ferries circling 'round. New Jersey's pale horizon in the distance. We gathered at John's screen and watched the streaming video: the reports emerging both dubious and true, the breathless eyewitness on the phone, the peculiar mix of tedium and prurience that attends TV coverage of aftermath. The spectacularization. The titling. The font. Miracle on the Hudson. The eager canonization of Chesley Sullenberger. The transmutation of charismatic survivors into perishable celebrities. It was all happening and so now we could relax.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It Was Something You Ate

Pinkas Lebovits, my new dermatologist, walked in and took a quick look at my arms.

"It was something you ate."

"Really?"

"Yes. What did you eat last night? Pork?"

"No."

"Seafood, shellfish?"

"No."

"No? Fish? No?"

"No."

"Spicy foods? Tomatoes?"

He broke off to take a call in Polish. The black cord hung across the door as he stood at the counter and faced the glass cabinets. Dobrze, dobrze, he said. Dobrze. Finally he hung up and turned around.

"So are you sure that's what it is? It's what I ate?"

"Yes. It comes from the inside."

He took his pad out of his lab coat pocket and began to scrawl.

"It will go away. Eat simple foods, simple."

"OK."

"No spicy foods, no pork. No fish."

"OK."

"The poison is leaving your system. No shellfish."

"No shellfish."

"Sometimes maybe you feel uncomfortable, but you don't worry." He made a circular gesture with his hand. "You gonna be fine."

"Good."

"Come see me in two weeks. It goes away already, cancel."

"Sure."

"If you cannot breathe, you call the emergency room."

"Right."

"No shellfish."

"OK."

"No pork, no fish. No red wine."

"Oh?"

"No eggs."

"OK."

He turned to open the door.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome," he said.

"Thanks," I said.

He walked ahead of me back down the hall.

"My name is Dr. Lebovits," he said. He didn't turn his head.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

There was an old man in my lane at the pool today who was swimming slower than I've ever seen anyone swim. His crawl had the automatic, unvarying quality of technique long ago passed into muscle memory; an old man's swim. But also his body'd stiffened along the way, as though by the premature onset of rigor mortis. He swam like a ghost ship.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I slept off the hangover from the baby shower but awoke woozy and out of sorts. We'd spent the day before at M. and A's, drinking, darting out into the darkening afternoon to smoke on the patio, snow swirling down between the buildings. We smoked pot and as I drank the world dissolved around me. Today I looked out the window: The snow had stuck but now the sun was shining.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Writers often point out that writing is hard work - much harder than people give them credit for, they seem to imply. This is true, but this is even more true: It's not so much that writing is hard; it's that not writing is so easy.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Streak - 15

Evan patted the dust off his knees and ass and picked up his bat. He was a bit shaken but he'd be OK in a minute. This pitcher got on top of him and it was his job to get on top back, that's all. Tap right cleats, bat-groin, pull gloves tight, bat in right hand, plant right foot, wriggle, lift left foot, tap one time, foot slight angle, bat straight out, bisect plate, feel helmet, bat over shoulder and handle in fists.

The pitcher looked back and forth to second base and home again, just as he'd done before, a replay of a hologram. He wound up and delivered and Evan thought he'd get the slider this time and that's what he got: the ball emerged with pace but Evan had his eye on it the whole way and he thought he knew just where it'd break. Again he released his shoulders, arms and legs; he rotated his body with full force and conviction and a desire to pull the ball from down around his knees and up into the stratosphere. But his brain perceived something that filled him with shame, regret and worry even as the ball was on its split-second voyage home. Kyle was sprinting for second base. Evan missed the bunt sign. His swing was instantly corrupted; he made good contact with the ball, feeling it weigh against the sweet spot for an instant, but his will to drive it was gone, replaced by a dreadful hesitation. The ball shot hard off his bat, to the right of the pitcher's ducking head and directly into the head-high glove of the second baseman, who promptly tagged second and ran back to tag Kyle, scrambling in futile retreat, thus recording the 15th unassisted triple play in the history of Major League Baseball.

Evan walked numbly toward the dugout as the bewildered silence in the stands gave way to raucous boos. Jim Bosworth was standing by the steps and Evan could see that his face was red and his mouth was opening and closing spasmodically, like some infernal ventriloquist's doll. As Evan approached the boos grew louder and Bosworth's mouth kept moving and Evan couldn't hear what he was saying but he could guess. At about ten feet away he began to hear.

"... a stupider fucking cocksucker than you! Get the fuck over here, you fucking piece of shit! You call yourself a motherfucking professional ball player, you cunt!? You don't look for the sign when you're at the fucking plate in a goddamn game of baseball!? Cunt?"

Evan nodded solemnly and walked down the steps. Bosworth hounded him into the dugout. A strand of spittle extended from the corner of his trembling mouth to the left shoulder of his jersey.

"Are you listening to me, I said cunt? Is that what you fucking are? You son of a bitch? I'm not gonna stop yelling until you get your next hit, you know what? You overpriced fucking jerkoff! You wanna play in the Little Leagues? You don't look for the sign!?"

Evan picked his glove up off the bench and turned back around. Bosworth persisted.

"Are you new to the game? Tell me. Are you a fucking little boy? Didn't your mamma teach you to take a sign? Did you take a fucking shit in your pants, for fuck's sake?"

Evan gamely hopped up the steps and trotted out toward third base. He could feel the prickly heat of Bosworth's taunts until they were masked again by the jeers and howls of the crowd.

"That's right, go back out there and play baseball you fucking piece of shit! Go catch a fucking grounder, you fucking jerkoff! Open up your fucking eyes, cocksucker!"



Illustration by Louise Asherson

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Matthew was interviewing me when his partner, Joe, entered the room.

"Joe, meet Pat!" said Matthew.

Joe extended his hand and watery spit erupted from his mouth, splashing his chin and sweater and dripping upon the carpet.

"Sorry! I was just brushing my teeth!" he declared.
You have to lapse into a kind of death when you become president. You've gone abstract; you've become an idea. You can no longer live in your house or cook for yourself or drive a car or go to the movies or sit in an airport bar drinking bloody marys. You can no longer send or receive e-mail either, evidently - is there any surer sign that what I say is true? E-mailing in 2009 is akin to inhaling and exhaling the air. When you're not allowed to do it any longer, you know you've reached a different place. It could be a nursing home, where your few remaining days will consist of being administered medications, drifting about in your wheelchair in a baby-blue bathrobe, eating soft, bland foods, and watching television in a common room. It could be prison, where life consists of reading, lifting weights, and parrying the efforts of rapists by periodically exploding with brazen, heedless rage. Or it could be the presidency of the United States. How could such a person be a person, when you think about it? I believe any presidential acceptance speech, any inauguration, must be tinged with this: the solemn aura of the condemned man, the designated one, the sacrificial lamb.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Streak - 14

Evan backed out of the box and tapped the dirt out of his right cleats. Not his left. He leaned the base of the bat against his groin and pulled his left glove tight, and then his right. Then he picked the bat back up in his right hand, stepped up, planted his right foot just inside the lower right-hand corner of the box and wriggled it a little until he could feel the dirt resist his spikes. He lifted his left foot and tapped his instep with the tip of his bat one time. He dropped his foot and let it rest lightly at a slight angle. He held the bat straight out from his waist so that the barrel appeared to bisect the plate. He felt his helmet. He brought the bat up over his right shoulder and gripped the handle in his fists.

The pitcher, operating from the stretch, was immobile but for his head, which he turned from side to side, glancing at Esteban on second and his catcher and back again without seeming to so much as notice his adversary at the plate. His gaze went blank as something transpired behind the webbing of his glove, where he held the ball in his right hand; some conspiracy of fingers, you could tell. The light came back in his eyes and he kicked his leg up high, pulled out the ball, stepped forward and whipped it 'round just as he had before and Evan wanted to hit it this time, knew he could hit it; he was hungry for it and so began to reach, an elemental act of will that opened a floodgate within him, and in the moment before it was manifested as massive torque upon his frame - like the moment after letting go of something but before it falls - something appeared to be terribly, terribly wrong: the ball hung in the air. Preciously. Mockingly. A changeup. Evan did everything he could to stop what he'd let loose. He twisted his knees, tried to turn against himself, tried to pull at his bat, pleaded for a momentary dispensation from the laws of physics. Evan wound up stabbing the dirt with his right knee and landing on his ass, the bat rolling half up on the grass.

"Strike two!"

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Serif

I'm taking my first swim at my new gym today, the Jewish Community Center right around the corner. I know you're not supposed to, but I feel like a stranger. No good reason to, but.

I swim, mostly mindless, faintly aware of the woman teaching her kid to swim; the red-shirted lifeguards - three or four or five of them, a surfeit; the purposeful, solemn swimmers in the fast lanes. A black cross on a white pennant hanging right above me on a line across the pool. For two or three stuporous laps, I swim past and take it at its face: a cross, a Christian cross. Christ crucified. Then, in the following order, I realize that:

It's actually the number "1" printed on both sides of semi-translucent plastic so that both serifs are visible at once, extending to the left and to the right, forming a cross.

They wouldn't have a pennant with Jesus Christ's cross hanging over this pool.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Streak - 13

Evan hardly thought about nothing. The PA played his at-bat music, "Waiting for the Bus" by ZZ top. He walked up to the plate and located the ghost of the batter's box, its chalk half-vanished in the dust, and planted his right foot just inside the lower right-hand corner.

Have mercy

He wriggled his foot a little until he could feel the dirt resist his spikes.

Been waitin' for the bus all day

He lifted his left foot and tapped his instep with the tip of his bat one time.

Have mercy

He dropped his foot and let it rest lightly at a slight angle to the plate, making him a little pigeon-toed.

Been waitin' for the bus all day

In his left hand, he held the bat straight out from his waist so that the barrel appeared to bisect the plate. He didn't like to touch the plate with the bat. He didn't think it right to do that, not if he were to hope to ever touch it with his foot.

I got my brown paper bag and my take-home pay

He felt his helmet, tacky with pine tar. Not to adjust it so much as to situate it, to know where his head was relative to his arms, his neck, his body. He brought the bat up over his right shoulder and gripped the handle in his fists. He imagined that his body's core - hips, ass, abdomen - was not propped up by his legs but bobbing on them, as in a sling. It felt good to be sprung upon his legs this way, to know where his body was and where the power rested in it. He let the bat waver a little and held it rather loosely. His grip was low on the handle for maximum leverage. His left shoulder and elbow quivered, too, giving his upper body and the tool he wielded - or was it a weapon? - an air of volatility, of huge potential fury. This was Evan's fifth stance in his seven years in the bigs, and he'd arrived at it only a week or so ago after arduous analysis, discussion, diagramming, visualization and practice with the Yanks' batting coach, Joe Rettenmeyer.

Evan glanced down the line at third base coach Andy Turner. No bunt, no hit-and-run. The pitcher he faced was known to throw fastballs on his first pitch, sometimes sliders. I won't swing, I won't swing, maybe I'll swing, I won't swing, thought Evan. Maybe I'll swing. The pitcher wound up and Evan tried to clear his mind. I won't swing. The ball appeared momentarily out of the pitcher's hand and shot into the catcher's mitt with a hiss and a pop.

"Strike one!" hollered the ump.




Saturday, January 03, 2009

A simple incongruity drew my eyes from my book on the subway today as we waited at 14th Street. A perfect scrap of white paper floated from out of sight, right down the middle of the opened doorway, and to the platform. The doors closed and then we left.