A funny thing happened on the way to Pensecola
Everyone's favorite road trip moment: flashing blue lights in the rearview. That was sarcasm by the way, like the kind infused in Ray's comment only a moment before: "Oh, you're a professional all right." Then appear the lights that only Vic can see in the mirror. His stomach sinks as he glances (too late) to the speedometer. Through his chewed up cigar, "Aw, shit." He downshifts to fourth and the Camaro roars in protest. Instinctively Ray knows to turn around in his seat to looky-loo. When he's done, he turns back around to settle in for the fun, "Well, jes show 'em your tits."
The car slows down some more and Vic steers her into an empty gravel parking lot. Garbage cans, telephone poles, and a tree line are beginning to reveal themselves in the dark, unmasked by an early navy blue. And what is navy blue is fast becoming purple and they've got about an hour to make the dawn at Gulf State Park, so this interruption is especially unwelcome. Vic shuts the car off and leans across Ray's lap to get at the glove compartment and the requisite trouble papers therein.
Ray asks, "How fast you were going?"
Vic shrugs, "I really wasn't payin' attention."
Playin' that God damned ball game again, is what. Then Ray thinks better of his poor attempt at a therapeutic diagnosis and decides to play nice. "Didn't seem like you were going that fast."
A moment later a young highway patrolman appears in Vic's rolled down window. The cool morning air comes into the car along with him. "License and registration please, sir."
Vic hands them over no problem. "M'really sorry about that, officer."
The officer looks up at the apology, noting Vic's sixty-three years of age, instead of the teenagers he'd expected, "Sorry, sir?"
"It's—we've been goin' for a while—it's late and I'm tired and I jes wasn't payin' attention, sir."
Leaning down so he can get a clear look at Ray as well, the officer stares for a moment. Ray's only sorry the kid's not wearing sunglasses so he could already have a good reason to hate him. "You were doin' eighty-six in a forty-five," the apparent and critical difference being in the last digits for some reason. Law-abiding Vic Hauser says nothing, doesn't even make eye contact. Take your licks, and move on. Just want to make that sunrise. "Are you aware that caliber of speeding falls within wreckless driving? I could arrest you right here on the spot."
Vic winces at the word 'arrest'. Ray winces at the use of 'caliber' and smiles: only thing worse than a pig is a dumb pig. Vic says, "I'm really sorry officer. If you'll just give me a ticket, I promise to go slow 'til we get where we're goin'. You have my word on that." Ray on the other hand, is getting worked up about the idle threat: so arrest us you little shit. Speeding at four-thirty in the morning in a G. D. Camaro is one thing. Wreckless driving was another caliber of crime entirely.
The officer lets his threat linger as he stands and begins scribbling in his ticket book. Another car whooshes by. The officer doesn't even look up. After a long silent moment he impatiently tears the ticket out off the pad and relents, "I'll reduce it to twenty over. But you're from out of state, and I'm gonna' call ahead and make sure folks are looking out for you, you got me?"
Vic takes the ticket and internally breathes a sigh of relief as Ray thinks, fuckin' country cop—whose he gonna call. Punk. But it's Vic that does the talking. "You got my word, sir."
"What are you gentlemen up to you at four-thirty in the morning exactly?"
Ray leans way over, arm spread over the dash, "Jes runnin' some ganja down to a fren'o'mine near Pensacola."
Vic closes his tired eyes, hangs his head, and slowly shakes it. God damn it, Ray.
"Jes runnin' some ganja down to a fren'o'mine near Pensacola."
His tweed herringbone sports coat defies common sense in the moist Spring heat and a modern age. He has no desire to camouflage himself with blandness like everyone else around him in the mall—scoffs at the florid shorts and flip flops. His clothes betray his age the same way a burning treachery in his eyes betrays his kindly, old wrinkled face and snow white goatee. Tattered, his clothes hang on his thin frame without evidence of preservation; as if moths and broken thread were really his garments. Sewn with a bold double stitch and still coming apart, even his seams are like a build-up of cautionary tales—-Victor Hauser's clothes don't frame him so much as bury him, and his grip on a debt that he firmly believes the Universe still owes him.
He stoops. Bending down to tie his shoe in the grand white plaza of this latest new sterile mall, Vic removes his Homburg hat and sets it on the concrete momentarily, so that his sixty-five-year-old hands might have opportunity to wrestle with an errant shoelace without the crown falling over his eyes. His face, a straight nose drowning in jowls, is a picture of creased concentration as he loops one string over the other, hands shaking. Vic Hauser's Way trickles out, through his shaky movements, his grimace defiantly agitated, even underneath gravity's favorite cheeks. He isn't yet ready to be bullied by old age. To Vic, every day is just a new fight as long as Life continues to see fit to give him another twenty-four hours like the last—-a decreasing probability of getting back everything he'd lost—-a challenge like a third turn up at home plate after striking out twice and ripping your triceps. He could have just tried to tuck it in towards third and then run in slow small steps stumbling to first base. He could have.
Shoe retied, the Homburg is placed back up top and he moves again, shuffling toward the far end of the plaza, where the buses wait. Vic had let go of his car too, or rather, driving it. He could no longer tolerate all the idiots on the road the days. It sits, unused, in his driveway, and these days the bus is his sole transport, leaving him to the restricted routes and impersonal curfews of the city of Columbus' bus schedules. The situation craved a new unfortunate aspect of his life: he spent a lot of time at home—and a lot of time at home alone.
Nodding politely at every passerby with a total lack of conviction Vic makes his way to the bus only to have it drive away without him, as he watches his reflection shrink in the slightly reflective back end. It is fifteen minutes until the next bus comes and Vic shifts his feeble trajectory toward an unoccupied bench by the curb. It is early Friday afternoon and there are very few people out and about, most existing inside office buildings where Vic himself could have once resided, only before, of course, he'd become no one at all.
Vic immediately shoots daggers at Ray who smiles gleefully back as if he just smelled manure for the first time and—I'll be, that's a mighty pleasant bouquet.
The officer stands erect, puts his pad away and looks to his own car, contemplating back up. "I'm gonna ask you gentlemen to step out of the car."
Hanging his head, Vic mutters to Ray, "I am going to kill you, you Son. Of. A. Bitch." He and Ray both get out of the car.
"If you'll both stand over by my vehicle, I'm going to search this car with your permission."
Vic rolls his eyes. "He's just an idiot, officer. He didn't mean that."
"If you gentlemen will stand by my vehicle."
Vic and Ray walk slowly towards the police car as Ray says conspiratorially, "Dipshit should've searched us first."
Under his breath as well, Vic says, "If you say another God damned word, he's gonna' have to arrest me for murder."
Ray gets out a cigarette and lights up. Now he's payin' attention. Yeah, now we're livin'. They both stop by the bumper of the patrol car and Vic refuses to look at his compatriot, arms crossed. Ray rests his bulk on the hood of the cop car. "Another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stanley."
"Shut. Up." Vic hisses. He watches the officer scuttling through the glove compartment. "I'm not shittin' you. I will skin you alive if we end in a county lock-up."
"He's jes talkin'."
"I will kick the beejesus out of you."
"Aw, calm down. There's no marijuana, dummy."
"So, what did you go and tell him there was for?"
Ray shrugs, "He looked bored."
Vic makes a fist and puts it up in Ray's face, still not looking at him.
The police officer stands up from out of the car and shouts over to Vic, "Sir, would open up the trunk please?"
"There isn't anything illicit officer," Vic pleads, getting his car keys out.
"Well, nothin' you're gonna' find!" Ray shouts.
In 1968 Vic Hauser batted a .203 average in the last season of his career, while playing for the Columbus Catfish in the minor leagues. And for those of you who don't know anything about baseball stats, well, let's just say that .203 in the context of Vic Hauser in the last season of his life means that he should ponder a career change. He gears himself up that entire last game, convincing himself that when he is at the plate for the last time, he is going to hit one—-the big one. The one that gets him out of the minor leagues. The one some scout sees. A hit that turns everybody's head up to the sky like the cumulonimbus tower of a sudden thunderstorm.
He strikes out—-doesn't even get close to the ball. He looks down at his sun-wrinkled knuckles as he waits at the bus stop and realizes that he is clenching his hands because the pain from it finally arrives in his foggy head. His knuckles are white. Vic looks up from underneath his Homburg as the Chattaoochee drifts by and he squinches his nose and eyes.
When he is finished, back on that warm day in April, he sets the bat down carefully near the dugout, puts his rear end on the aluminum bench for the last time, endures the pats and sympathies of his teammates, and finally completes a thought that had been trying to occur to him for the previous four years: his life is over. Victor's father agrees several hours later in an argument over dinner: "You have to want it, Vicky. You have to want it. That's all right. Ya' just didn't want it." God damned dead son of a bitch. Victor's wife certainly agrees six months later when she leaves what little shell of him is left in the armchair from which he watches the Braves and the other boys most of the time.
In fact, most of the fans there that day, watching a game on a beautiful clear blue day pretty much didn't care. No one thought that he didn't want it—-that he choked—-though they did think of Vic Hauser as "big time" in Columbus. They thought he had a bad day. And then he was gone from the roster.
He still signs autographs in his hardware store. At the wry age of twenty-four, Victor Hauser was done. What had been a rumor about a bad elbow among whoever back in the day, is now a fact and he is a spectacle to stare at when fans in the store try to recall who he is when think he's not looking. That Day, the fans mill out of the stands glancing at him with smiles as he shakes the hands of the players of the other team with his stern chin stuck right out. He looks back on their missing confidence with resentment—resentment of the pity he perceives, resentment of the sorrow, until he blinks and wakes up and realizes that there is no pity or sorrow for a baseball player anymore, but just an old man who's almost always found down by the river walk.
"It's a God damned good thing they wasn't nobody in it."
"God damned? It's a God blessed thing, ya' ijut." Ray pauses to chew on some whiskers in his mustache. "And God wouldna' had to be involved with it had they had a damn building permit like they shoulda'!"
That catches Vic's attention, who has just sat down to the bar and hasn't ordered yet. "They didn't have a building permit for that church?"
Ray just says, "Where you been?"
And the Idiot just replies, "That's sep-ration of church 'n' state, Ray. Gov'ment's got no business inspectin' a church."
"G. Zus Christ, Jimmy. You ain't got the good sense God gave a ferret."
"What? Is that like a rat?"
The Cannon Brew Pub is a long room with the short side set along Broadway. The bar faces the brewing equipment in the back and was short, with only six stools. Vic liked it because around about four o'clock you could sit with your back to the bar and see the sunlight and good people strolling about without having to be a part of the whole stupid mess. The place got its name from a brass-plated cannon that sat near the front and had once been part of old Fort Benning nearby.
"And guess what else I read in the old Ledger-Enqurier, Mr. Hauser?"
Vic doesn't say a word. Stupid nosy cub reporters.
The Idiot reads from the paper, " 'Drug addicts' car crashes into Hauser Hardware pro—pro-pry-itor Vic Hauser's home late Thursday night.' Well, how 'bout that? Guess you had an excitin' evenin'."
Vic says nothing, waiting on the bartender.
Ray hits the Idiot in the shoulder and wrinkles his nose. "Nothin' exciting 'bout a car smashin' into your house." The Idiot nods in realization.
"Got a whole mess a paperwork ta fill out for the insurance is all I got."
"Nothin' excitin' ever happens to ol' Vic," Ray laments.
"What would you know, ya' vagrant?" Just then the bartender comes over and stands in front of Vic. Just behind him, over his shoulder reads a sign that says,
1. The bartender is always right
2. If the bartender is wrong, see Rule #1
"Get me a beer, Nelson, before these hippies and waywards drive my business out the door."
The car had just nicked the house, really. Some of the siding would have to be replaced. Vic makes a mental note that thirty-three years ago he should have made the investment to go with the brick. Then the sonuvabitch'd be sorry. Insurance would cover it though. Now it is eerily quiet in the front yard, even with all the neighbors looking on and the strobes from the two patrol cars lighting everything up.
The deputy asks, "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"Victor. Hauser. H-A-U-S-E-R."
"Okay. Thank you, sir."
Vic waits for the moment of recognition, but it does not arrive.
Just then Sheriff McKale strolls over. "Sorry, Vic. They keep givin' 'em to me younger and younger—don't know their history." The Sheriff winks at the deputy who is perplexed. "This young turk here—all he knows about is computers. Not baseball."
Vic just says huh.
"You're lucky, Mr. Hauser, sir, he didn't drive right on into your living room."
Vic nods; like he needs some pup to tell him that. He looks out to the yard where a muddy, shirtless, exhausted man in handcuffs is being picked up off the ground. Idiots. All of them.
It was three beers and six innings later at the Cannon Brewpub that Vic is thinking about that irritatingly sunny day when Ray James says, "It's only six hours to Gulf Breeze—why not just go?" in a bar, in the same town, some forty odd years after Vic struck out and forty minutes after Vic has relived it once again. Ray checks his old navy watch (one of the big, solid, metal-banded ones with the anchors) and says, "We could just catch the sun coming up." Vic takes a moment to wonder himself what time it is, but never asks.
Vic is thinking about his bat, the name of the company branded in charcoal black on the wood at the base. He stares at the amber color of his beer as though an answer lurks there, and he isn't really paying attention to Ray and what Ray is saying. He hears pieces, "no need for us... supposed to be retired... tired is the only proper half..." The bright day of the swing and the miss and Maggie leaving and the noise of the car slamming into the house and the thousands of days at the store and all the disappointed faces all start to blur together with Ray jabbering in the background and Vic isn't really paying attention or particularly committed to the idea when he nods quietly and says, "Yeah."
"Are you serious?" Ray starts, his flat, white Pall Mall cigarette almost falling into his beer. He sits up a little on his stool, straightening out the patterns on his flower print, button-up shirt. It cuddles his gut at the waistline.
Vic looks up from his reverie at the bar and replies, tired, "Yeah." He sighs again. "Let's go," as though they were going to a funeral and not a sunrise. And he knows he isn't going to remember the name of the company that made the bat, anyway. Wilson? Schmit? Fuck it. Who knew? Who could ever even tell him if he didn't know?
"Well, shit," Ray scoffs. "I didn't think you were capable of spontaneity there, Vic."
Vic looks around the bar—at all the faces he knows, has known for a long time. He watches the faces as they talk and occasionally glance at him, some nodding a polite greeting to him, some just looking, some staring at a baseball game on the television up above the bar. He turns back to the bar, sips his beer, and smiles kindly at Ray. "I'm clearly not capable of it, Ray."
An hour later, somewhere at the bottom of Alabama, Ray can do nothing but complain about his knee. In no time at all, the pair had pulled off a miraculous escape from the boundaries of Columbus, Georgia. (Miraculous only because no sobriety infringed on their efforts with any twinge of responsibility or sanity as they went through the motions of packing.) They had gone to Vic's house and gotten some things; clothes, toiletries, and a box of cigars that Vic had saved for no particular occasion. He'd stared at the top drawer of the dresser, empty except for the cardboard box of cigars, and let his imagination play out a scene of him on white sand, smoking a big stogie as the sun came up from behind them and the water turned an unusual shade of blue. It isn't enough of a vision to make him smile, but he knew he couldn't remember the last time he saw the Gulf, and that was enough to keep him moving. At some point somewhere, he smacked that last pitch out of the park.
Ray had needed and picked up about the same stuff, sans cigars, from his apartment ten miles west of Vic's place. He took his old green, navy duffle bag and filled it with clothes that he categorized as beachbum attire. And that was it.
In the bottom of Alabama Vic is through. He just keeps thinking that to himself. What need is there for responsibility when a man is through? What of loyalty, what of faith? He had come and gone. His time had passed. The only thing he had trust and faith in was Tommy, a local high school boy who helped him run his hardware store. Tommy would open the store, run the store, close the store. Tommy was that way—like a dog that just sits and waits for his master to come home, content to watch over the property, not own it. Tommy is like Vic that way. No questions—like when Vic found out his wife had packed her things and moved out, leaving him only a brief letter, basically explaining nothing other than he should know why she was gone. He asked nothing, said nothing. No questions. He didn't call, didn't write, didn't try to find her. Tommy wouldn't question Vic's absence. He'd just run the store until Vic got back. And Vic smiles, while chewing on a half-finished cigar, steering his Camaro through the night. Tommy pretty much ran the store anyway—Vic was just there for the celebrity endorsement. He was public relations. He was pretty much worthless, and, right now, is through being worthless for a while.
"Damn," Ray complains in his Valdosta, Georgia drawl. "I don't remember it bein' this bad in a while." He sits up to rub his knee, gets smoke in his eyes, and tosses the last of his cigarette out the window, irritated.
Vic just drives, his cigar clenched between his small, yellow teeth. He doesn't even hear Ray—just the hum of the road, the low rumble of his dark green Camaro's V8 engine.
"I don't suppose we could stop for a sec, Vic—jes' so's I can get some aspirin or somethin'?" Ray asks as he gets another cigarette from out of his shirt pocket and lights it.
Vic blinks and looks around the car before focusing on Ray. "Huh?"
Ray signs with his hands to his apparently deaf partner, "As-pir-in." He pantomimes unscrewing a lid and popping a couple of imaginary pills into his mouth.
"Oh. Yeah, sure. We can stop." Vic checks his gas gauge and sees that there is a quarter of a tank left. "I need gas anyway."
"Man, where the hell are you?" Ray asks. "You haven't said two words in the last hour."
Shaking his head slowly, Vic doesn't reply. He is driving.
"I tell you what, man: when we see that sun come up over the Gulf, I promise, everything will look a lot prettier. Forget about the house. That'll all work itself out." Ray leans the car seat back and adjusts his knee. He smiles at the dark road and where it is taking them.
Vic doesn't care if the house falls over.
"I remember being on the deck of the U.S.S. Hoover on the way back to San Diego. I was on my way home, and I was up when the sun came up. I've never seen anything prettier. Everything that'd happened didn't matter. My whole tour just sorta' vanished into memory when that sun came up. I don't know what it was about that sunrise. I just can never forget it."
"When did we meet?" Vic asks tangentially.
"Shit," Ray replies, thinking about it for a moment, "I don't know what year, but a couple of years before Maggie left."
Vic ponders it. He is pretty sure Ray is on target. "It seems like I've known you longer."
"It does seem that way," Ray muses, as Vic puts the turn signal on and steers the car into a gas station.
"I'm gonna' get somethin' ta' sip on," Ray comments, opening the passenger door, and gingerly moving his leg to one side, the kneecap popping loudly accompanied by a liquid squishing sound. "You want anything?"
"No, that's all right."
Ray takes his cigarette out of his mouth and leans over to put it out on the ground.
"What the hell are you doing?" Vic asks, watching Ray carefully.
"What?" Ray looks at Vic and then at the cigarette. "Oh c'mon. It ain't like there's a puddle of the stuff on the ground." Ray points at the asphalt. "It's perfectly dry."
Vic shakes his head in disbelief.
Grabbing the roof of the Camaro, Ray pulls himself up into a standing position and tests his knee carefully. He looks across the roof of the car at Vic's back as Vic gets a hose off the gas pump. He stares thoughtfully for just a second wondering what his friend is thinking about before Vic turns around to fuel the car. Then, Ray turns and limps into the gas station store.
When Ray opens the door with a jingle, freon cooled air assaults his nostrils. The attendant and the manager warily eye his blue and orange flower print shirt, his rough beard. He looks like some crazy-dressed old hippie dragged out of a bar early in the morning, because he was. Ray looks around the drinks, grabs some fruit punch, limps down another aisle to get his aspirin and then stops to look at a rack of sunglasses.
He tries a few pairs on and looks at himself in the mirror on the rack. Regardless of the frames, he looked silly in sunglasses, and each time he puts on a new pair, he just chuckles to himself. When the playful light in Ray's eyes is covered up, he looks like a whiskery old criminal. It is his eyes that make people trust him—even if it is against their will. Some errant vibrance pulled in the curious, the wary, and the lost with that twinkle. Ray always looked like he knew a secret. Still though, he decides that it is a matter of practicality. He and Vic were going to Florida. He would need some sunglasses. Finally, he settles on a pair of thick cheap gold plastic frames with brown tinted lenses, just like the King.
Approaching the counter, he smiles at the young attendant and the manager, looking like some failed Southern rural Gestapo in their matching green and yellow polo shirts. Both of them overweight, the manager stands just behind the attendant like a Russian doll and its miniature counterpart. "Going to Florida," Ray announces. He sets the sunglasses, drink, and aspirin down on the counter. "Figure I'll need a pair of these." Then he shows them a strained, manic, huge smile, since it was obvious at the door they weren't going to be friendly.
The attendant attempts to smile politely in return, and fails, as he rings up Ray's goods. The manager doesn't smile or move and just watches the attendant's fingers for mistakes. It is apparent that the kid is in training the way his dirty hands hover uncertainly over the keys.
Vic comes in the jingly door and steps up to the counter as Ray pulls out a crumpled wad of twenty dollar bills and pays the attendant with one of them. He takes his stuff, gets his change, smiles at Vic, and then tells the employees, "Ya'll have a good morning," and leaves with another jingle from the door.
"Eighteen on number three," Vic says. He gets out his credit card and gives it to the attendant. Glancing in Ray's direction, and then looking the manager directly in the eyes, he says, "I can't believe I got to drive that fool another hundred miles."
The manger chuckles. Vic looks every part the respected ladderman in his pastel polo, his khaky pants. He and the manager were of the same caliber of completely unnoticeable men. There is nothing to be afraid of about Vic, and everything to want to marginally like. The attendant runs the credit card through a machine and hands it back.
"He's quite a character," the manager says, his arms folded and resting on his large stomach.
Vic nods and smiles. Then, taking his receipt, he heads for the door, "Take care."
"Have a nice mornin'," the attendant replies.
"Good luck," the manager says, chuckling.
"Yeah." Vic calls out. He walks out the door, over to the car, and gets in.
Ray is carefully lowering himself back down into his seat with a grimace on his face.
"You all right?" Vic asks, concerned. His friend complained unnecessarily sometimes, but not usually that much and not without a smile. Ray had a habit of complaining while smiling. The world could smell like shit, and everybody would know it, Ray included, but he'd just say, "Smells like shit today," and keep smiling with that sparkle in his eyes. Maybe his secret was that he liked the smell of shit.
"Yep, yep," Ray says adjusting himself in the seat and shutting the door, enclosing the cabin in shadows again as the interior light shuts off. He looks to Vic, "Don't mind me. I got drugs now." He holds up a little plastic bottle and rattles it, laughs quietly through his nose.
Vic rolls his eyes.
Looking over his shoulder into the gas store, Ray peers at the attendant and the looming, fat manager. "What'd you say to them? They weren't that friendly when I came in. Sure seemed to like you though."
"I said, 'I can't believe I have to drive this fool another hundred miles,'."
Ray smiles. "And a hundred fifty back tomorrow."
Vic starts the car, revs the engine, and pulls out of the gas station, raising his eyebrows like he is staring at some oncoming something because he doesn't know what the hell he is doing.
The officer steps up to Ray, who is several inches taller, even hunched over, and stares at him as menacingly as he can from beneath the brim of his hat. "Do you think this is funny?"
Ray replies, casual as can be, "Yeah. Yeah, I do think it's funny."
"Lying to a police officer is a crime."
"I'm not lying. There's marijuana in that car, and you are never going to find it."
The police officer steps up closer to Ray. "How 'bout I put you away for the night while I search the car. Is that going to be funny?"
Ray gets serious suddenly, and leans in to the police officer. "How 'bout you take off that badge, and I teach you some respect for your elders, you little punk."
"Ray!" Vic starts to grab for him.
"No," Ray replies, fending off Vic with a stiff arm and throwing his cigarette on the ground, "I'm serious. What's the matter with you, boy? That trenchant and gun take the humor outa'ya'? Your Daddy never teach you what a joke is? I'm three times your age. I'm a vet. If I wanna' crack a little joke to lighten things up this early in the morning, I gotta' right. Stop actin' tough and do your job. Give us a ticket and let us get going."
The officer stands back a little, wearing a serious mask on his face. One thing about what Ray said seems right: it is too early in the morning to be dealing with this crap. If he is going to be the better man, he is going to let it slide. The officer looks at the ground and tucks his thumbs in his belt. Then, looking up to Vic, he says, "Take your friend, and get out of here." Then, looking at Ray, he says, "The law is still the law."
Ray smiles sympathetically and looks into the patrolman's eyes—something the young man is not used to when in uniform—except from superiors. "Don't think I don't know where you're comin' from, son—I was in the military for God's sake—but take some advice from an older man: you gotta' know when to be the law and when to be a human being."
The officer doesn't seem to hear Ray, and Vic just looks surprised at his friend. Ray was capable of picking fights, but he'd never seen him win one quite like this.
"Goodnight, gentlemen." The officer walks around the front of his car to the driver's side door, and Vic and Ray walk back to the Camaro and get in, Ray lowering himself down carefully, even though the aspirin has taken effect.
Vic puts the key in the ignition and turns the lights on, then waits for the patrol car to pull out first. He looks over at Ray for a moment, without saying anything and pulls back out onto the highway.
"Little bit of fun never hurt," Ray says, staring out into the dark on the right side of the highway, though he's not laughing.
Vic shakes his head and doesn't reply. He adjusts his hands on the steering wheel, sits back in his fake leather seat, and thinks about hitting that last ball out of the park with a Louisville slugger.
Vic watches as the yellow reflectors in the road snake lightly left then right like a miles-long lumbering, unending centipede—as though he were not traveling at all, not driving, but just sitting in his seat aimlessly pulling the steering wheel to and fro as a giant glowing animal with a million legs scuttles past. He looks to the right and sees a hundred reflections of early sky in the bottom of the woods, the secret dark wet of the marshes. Somewhere in the morning, he hears his father's voice from behind the batting cage, yelling at him from behind the chain-linked fence after the rest of the team had gone home, after the coach had gone, in the dusk. "Life is basebell! If you ever want to amount to anything, you better believe that it's in hitting that ball, or you minus well quit now!" Vic was ordained by his Father to be a priest to the religion of baseball. He played every day, ignorant of all else that was going on. 50 some-odd years on now, there is just a stupid beach that Ray wants to watch the sun rise over. Fair enough, thinks Vic. They were already 250 plus miles from home; surely it was 50 years too late to protest. He was long off the path of the Church.
Now, the calm pre-dawn blue that surrounds him makes its rebuttal. It is beginning to filter through the trees, making him breathe, and showing him a world where baseball was equal in all things. Equal in the dark and the muck and the water. He cracks the window a bit and there's that luscious smell of the Gulf; salt and just... what? Decay? Of course. Decay. He looks to Ray again, who is sleeping quietly, and he smiles. What an idiot. And what a relief.
Ray had once asked, "So what exactly do those batting averages mean—like, where do they come from? Do they actually count every time you bat?" Ray hadn't believed it, couldn't believe it; that someone actually stood and counted every single time you batted, quantified your every move, added your life up by the numbers and divided it. He had said it was too much "like Santa Claus's list of brats" to be believed.
Vic parks the car at the Gulf State Park just as the Eastern sky is putting on its yellow hue. Ray wakes up blinking, and looks around the quite of the car interior, like waking into a dream instead of from it. He smiles to himself but doesn't say anything. Silently, he puts his seat upright and gets out of the car, the pain in his knee back from the numbness of the aspirin, but he soldiers through. Vic picks up some garbage from the floor of the Camaro, and gets out.
They walk up a set of wooden stairs in a peculiar dance of avoiding each other so that nothing will be said, and the quiet respected, the nearby waves doing the only talking needed. As they walk, they look around them at sand as white as sugar, tinged blue, with sparse brush straining to hold it all together and keep it from washing away. Their footsteps thump along the boardwalk, up over the dunes, and their eyes level on a body of blue that stretches out like its capable of chasing the night off. At the bottom of the stairs, in unison, Vic and Ray take off their shoes and leave them in the sand by the stairs. They walk down the beach a ways, looking at the first bit of sun coming up over the horizon, the sandpipers dashing, and ghost crabs running.
Ray sits down first, plunking his heavy ass in the sand, and lights a cigarette. Vic, who'd been unconsciously chewing on his unlit stub of a stogie, keeps chewing and sits down next to his friend. After a moment, he pulls the brown roll from his mouth, observes it thoughtfully, and then chews it some more. Ray offers the light and Vic obliges and lights up, invigorated when the burnt chocolate tobacco diffuses that decay and salt smell already in his nose.
"You know, it's Saturday," Ray says.
Vic closes his eyes with a silent, knowing laugh, and nods. He sees Tommy standing behind the counter.
"Sabbath used to be on Saturday."
Looking at his friend, unsure of the implication, Vic just stares for a moment, and then looks back to the sun. Then he turns his head to the leftovers of the night.
Laughing a little, Ray looks back at Vic, that secret pooling in his eyes. "You ready to head back now?"
Vic smiles. He can feel the skin pulling where its not used to stretching. Sitting in the sand without a chair, he can feel muscles he hadn't used in a while. He replies, "They say there is no goin' back."
Ray chuckles and shoves his feet into the cool sand, "Eh. What the hell do they know? They got shit to do. It don't matter what they tell ya', you can always go back."
"Yeah, but I don't want to."
"I guess you don't hafta' then." Ray stares into the sun, and after a long moment says, "You remember—hell if I know what season that was—hell if I know what year—but the Catfish beat, uh... Charleston..." Rays snaps his fingers, "the RiverDogs by one point. You made that crazy hit that just about rolled out to the mound and then—pop!— it just flew off between home and first? Hit a rock or somethin'. Shit! You ran under the ball!"
Vic stares blankly.
"The bases was loaded! And, then you made that crazy hit and the RiverDogs just lost their shit. The Catfish were down by two and then, just everybody on base managed to come in off that wacky bounce. Well, 'cept you." Ray smacks the sand. "That was the craziest hit I've ever seen in baseball! Rum—eh—Rummy came in from third—you got ta first before they even dug the ball out of the ground in front of the stands. Then, Jaspers came in—ties it—the RiverDogs throw the ball ta second? I guess they saw you runnin' because second throws to home to get Allen, and he just slides in, and that was it! That was it! Catfish by one! And all off that sonovbitch bounce. Do you even call a hit like that a single?"
Vic squints, there was a hit like that he remembered.
"How can you not remember? We partied hard that night! Gibbons took out a telephone pole with his truck and still showed up at the house. Walked there. Shit, even Maggie got in on the action that night. She was up on the dining room table shakin' it." Ray looks to Vic, "You remember?"
Vic smiles again, "That good Baptist woman up on that table? Good God, how could I forget that."
"We tore it up!"
"Boy, we tore it up."
They sit in silence again, the waves pouring out of the ocean at about the same rate as their memories.
"You know, Vic, you can go back. You can re-live your days. You jes gotta re-live the right ones."
Vic can't stop smiling, and tears come into his eyes and a shiver rolls through him. He sniffs. "You're a smart man, Ray. Don't let no one tell you different."
"Well, shit. I guess."
"Ah," Vic says, looking into a clear bright blue sky, the sun seated on the distant water and beach in the East. He shoves his feet in to the sand. There are pelicans overhead. The beach is bright but cool. There is water as far as the eye can see, and only the sound is the slow, rush of waves. "Let's just go back when we damn well feel like it." Vic takes a deep breath. "And I don't care if that's never, Ray."
Ray says, "Yup."