Everyone in America’s favorite road trip moment: flashing blue lights in the rear view. 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. His stomach sinks simultaneously as he glances to the speedometer (too late). 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 and telephone poles are beginning to reveal themselves, unmasked by an early purple. And what is purple is fast becoming navy blue and they’ve got about an hour to make the dawn at Gulf State Park. Vic shuts the car off and leans across Ray’s lap to get at the glove compartment and the requisite trouble papers.
“How fast were you 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 attempts at therapy and decides to be nice. “Didn’t seem like you were going that fast.”
A moment later a young officer 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, having already noted Vic’s sixty-three years of age. “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 tens for some reason. Law-abiding Vic Hauser says nothing, doesn’t even make eye contact. Take your licks, boy. “Are you aware that caliber of speeding falls within reckless driving? I could arrest you right here on the spot.”
Vic winces at the word ‘arrest’. Ray winces at the use of ‘caliber’ and smile: only thing worse than a pig is a dumb pig. “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. Reckless driving was another caliber of crime entirely.
The officer lets his threat linger as he stands and begins scribbling in his ticket book. Surprisingly 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. Who’s 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, “Jes runnin’ some ganja down to a fren’o’mine near Pensacola.”
In which it is discovered that Vic Hauser is not a practical dresser.
His tweed herringbone sports coat reveals a lack of sensibility in the moist Spring heat. He has no desire to camouflage to bland like everyone else around him in the mall. His clothes betray his own age in the same way a burning treachery in his eyes betrays his kindly, old and wrinkled face. Tattered as as his clothes are they hang on his thin frame without desire for self-preservation; as if moths and broken thread cling to him. Sewn with a bold double stitch, even his seams are more like cautionary tales than some whimsical, taped-on myth—Victor Hauser’s frayed clothes don’t frame him so much as bury him, and his grip on a debt that he firmly believes life 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 never fails to trickle out, through his shaky movements, his defiantly agitated grimace, from beneath gravity’s favorite cheeks; he isn’t yet ready to be bullied by old age. Indeed, 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 ever lost—a challenge like a third turn up at home plate after striking out twice and breaking your arm. He could have just tried to tuck it in towards third and then run in slow small steps to stumble 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 his car too or rather driving it. It sits unused in his driveway, and these days the bus is his sole transport, leaving him to the restrictions and impersonal curfews of the city of Columbus’ bus schedules. The only unfortunate aspect of his life lately: 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 to move toward an unoccupied bench by the curb. It is Friday afternoon and there are very few people out and about, most existing inside office buildings where Vic himself could have once resided, only after, of course, he’d become no one at all.
In which Ray pisses off a sheriff for seemingly no reason at all and deters he and Vic from driving to the Gulf of Mexico.
Vic immediately shoots daggers at Ray who smiles gleefully back as if he just smelled shit 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 stupid 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 stop by the bumper and Vic refuses to look at his compatriot, his 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 adds.
In which we discover the source of Vic’s misery.
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 that does like big hits do, and turns everybody’s head up to the sky like the cumulonimbus tower of a surprise storm cloud. 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. He notices because his arthritis has set in (not that the pain bothers him). His knuckles are white. Vic looks up from underneath his Stetson as the Chattaoochee drifts by and 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 has been occurring to him for the last 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 other boys. In fact, most of the fans there that day, familiar with the team, all of them watching a beautiful clear blue day pretty much come to a similar conclusion: that he didn’t want it—that he choked—though they thought of him as big time in Columbus.
He still signs autographs in his hardware store. At the wry age of twenty-four, Victor Hauser was done. What had been a rumor among them about a bad elbow is now a fact and a spectacle to stare at when they think he’s not looking. They mill out of the stands glancing at him with puzzlement 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 realizes that there is no pity or sorrow for a baseball player, but just an old man who’s almost always found down by the river walk.
In which Ray explains things to the Idiot and Vic explains things to Ray.
“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 faced the brewing equipment in the back and was short too, 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 out about in it 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 the 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.
“‘Drug addicts’ car crashes into Hauser Hardware proprieter Vic Hauser’s home late Thursday night.’ Well, how ’bout that? Guess you had an excitin’ evenin’.”
“There’s nothin’ excitin’ about that you dimwit.”
Ray hits the Idiot in the shoulder and wrinkles his nose. “Nothin’ exciting ’bout a car smashin’ into your house.” The Idiot nods.
“Got a whole mess a paperwork ta fill out fer the insurance is all I got.”
“Nothin’ excitin’ ever happens to ol’ Hauser,” 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.”
In which Vic hopes to be remembered by a young man but is disappointed.
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 younge—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 inta your livin’ 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.
In which Vic declares his non-spontaneous state and agrees to leave for the Gulf with Ray.
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 naval 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, and what kind of bat it had been. It was wood, that much he remembered. But he is contemplating the brand name, 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…” So, he 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 near the wasteline.
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?
“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 not capable of it, Ray.”
Ray looks on for an explanation and for a moment is worried he will be disappointed.
“Ain’t nothin’ about it spontaneous. I’ve been meaning to leave this shit town for twenty-six years.”
In which gas station attendants are not polite to Ray but are polite to Vic.
An hour later, of course, somewhere in the midst of Alabama, Ray could do nothing but complain about his knee. In no time at all, the pair had pulled off a veritable miraclous escape from out of the boundaries of Columbus, Georgia. (Miraculous only because no twinge of responsibility or sanity had affected them 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 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 it made him feel that some things were still worth daydreaming about. At some point somewhere, he had 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 is it. They left.
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. He had come and gone, his time had passed. The only thing he had trust and faith in is 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 is 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 poorly written letter. 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 always ran the store anyway–Vic is just there for mock celebrity endorsement. He is public relations. He is pretty much worthless, and he 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 by it.
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 resonance 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.” Ray leans the car seat back and adjusts his knee. He smiles at the dark road and where it is taking them. Vic nods.
“I remember being on the deck of the U.S.S. Hoover on the way back to San Diego. I is on my way home, and I is 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.”
“When did we meet?” Vic asks tangentially.
“Shit,” Ray replies, thinking about it for a moment, “1971.”
“It is the year before Maggie left.”
Vic ponders it. He is pretty sure Ray is on target. “It seems like I’d 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 swishing harmony of some kind. “You want anything?”
“No, that’s all right,” Vic replied.
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 shrugs and gets out of the car.
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 cool air assaulted his nostrils, the attendant and the manager warily eye his blue and orange flower print shirt, his goutee. He looked like something to beware of–not suspicious, but not immediately trustworthy. 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 on and looks at himself in the mirror mounted 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 of some kind. It is his eyes that make people trust him — even if it is against their will. They pulled in the curious, the wary, the lost with their light. 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.
Approaching the counter, he smiles at the young attendant and the manager, still looking like a Southern Gestapo in their 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,” he announces. He sets the sunglasses, drink, and aspirin down on the counter. “Figure I’ll need a pair of these.” Then he smiles ridiculously, since it is obvious they are’t going to be friendly.
The attendant attempts to smile politely in return, strained, as he rings up Ray’s goods. The manager doesn’t 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 each key he presses.
Vic comes in the jingly door and steps up to the counter as Ray pulls out a 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 smiles, even laughs a little. Vic looked the part of the Everyman 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 in 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 reciept, 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 bit of a grimace on his face.
“You all right?” Vic asks, genuinely 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 bottle to show Vic, and laughs quietly through his nose. Vic rolls his eyes.
Looking over his shoulder into the gas store, Ray peers at the fat 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 chuckling, because suddenly, he doesn’t know what the hell he is doing.
In which Ray continues to egg a police officer on.
“There isn’t any marijuana, officer,” Vic pleads politely.
“Well, none your gonna’ find,” Ray adds.
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?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do think it’s funny,” Ray says casually.
“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 and throwing his cigarette on the ground, “I’m serious. What’s the matter with you, boy? All that power take the humor outa’ya’? Your Daddy never teach you what a joke is? I’m twice your age. If I wanna’ crack a little joke to lighten things up this early in the morning, I gotta’ right.”
The officer stands back a little, a serious look still on his face. Something about what Ray said is 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 let his arms hang more loosely. Then, looking up to Vic, he says, “Take your friend, and get out of here.” Then, looking at Ray, he says, “The law is the law.”
Ray smiles sympathetically and looks into the officers eyes—something the young man is not used to when he is in uniform. “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 you.”
The officer doesn’t seem to hear Ray, and Vic just looks surprised at his friend’s sudden patience and demeanor. Ray was capable of good things, but not often.
“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. In that moment, for some reason, he actually doesn’t want to mess with a good thing.
Vic puts the key in the ignition and turns the lights on, then waits for the policeman 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.
Vic shakes his head and doesn’t reply. He’s too old to be as mad as he is and would rather just move on to relief. 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.
In which Vic describes his Camaro’s security features.
Ray reaches down to the floor and comes back up with a rubber mallet. “Now what the hell is this for?”
Vic doesn’t say anything.
“Ain’t gonna’ fix much in the engine with this kind of hammer, you know.”
“Uh. Yep. It’s for security.”
“You gonna’ clobber somebody with this thing?”
“You ain’t gonna’ hurt anybody hittin’ ’em with this.”
“You could kill somebody with that.”
“You could knock ’em out.”
“And then you keep hittin’ ’em a few times.”
“A few times, huh?”
“Trust me, I’m a professional.”
“Yeah, you’re a professional, all right.”
In which Vic drives the lasts thirty minutes in the quiet while Ray sleeps.
The last part of the drive, the last thirty minutes to Pensacola, is the best part. It’s a flat straightaway; dark walking-papers that funnel you straight into the ocean, or at least that beach road right parallel to the surf—and it’s a pretty stretch. Turn from your headlight’s glare to the side and there white glints of the moon are multiplied in a thousand puddles of the secret bogs on either side of an anonymous two-lane highway. But the other view that Vic has when he turns his head, besides the moon and bogs and all, at his companion, he finds him to be fast asleep, meaning he can enjoy the simplicity of the view without babbling commentary. Ray still has his mouth open though, his head rolled over toward the window. In twenty-six years, Vic had never met someone who was quite as peculiar in their logic as Ray. Even though most of the old war horse’s habits were annoying, Vic had to admit that life was interesting when Ray was around. He didn’t like the state of Ray’s apartment, didn’t like how much Ray drank and smoked, didn’t like how loudly he dressed or how loud he just was, and Vic didn’t like Ray’s work ethic (or a complete lack thereof). But somehow, without Ray around, life’s meaning had to be garnered from a trip to the grocery store or a barbecue, and though Vic didn’t put much stock in such things, he knew there was more to life than that.
Vic watches as the yellow reflectors in the road snake lightly left then right like a miles-long lumbering and 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 that dark marsh passing him by, wondering about all the things occurring in front of him that he just cannot see, wondering about life and what it means to him—just him—days slipped by. His father had given him a “speech” from behind the batting cage once, yelling at him from behind the chain-linked fence after the rest of the team had gone home, after the coach had gone. “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 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 too late to protest his actions.
The only thing Vic had imagined love to be was a good-looking woman who loved his passion for baseball—loved him for his love for baseball—a woman who came out to see him play every time he stepped up to a plate. The baseball did not care about her, she was not aiming at it. Her goals lay elsewhere, and when his concern for the ball was gone, she became as meaningless as the name on that god damned bat he’d swung.
The weavings of that little white sphere spun through his mind in a curveball that beanballed any hopefully philosophical thoughts. The only meaning to be gained from life orbited around that ball, wove itself into the fabric. And when one day in April, that ball flew right past him with a loud leather thump in the catcher’s mitt, he had believed that his life was truly over.
Now, the calm pre-dawn blue that surrounds him makes its rebuttal. It is beginning to filter through the trees, and making him breathe, and showing him a world where that baseball was equal in all things—even then, he sees a place where meaning is derived from love that lasts a lifetime. Where were his fans, his father, his wife, as he plows through Florida to the gulf? Where is the meaning in not saying what he feels? What was the point in leaving a place that he’d always planned to leave anyway? He looks to Ray again, sleeping quietly, and smiles, the indigo of a coming dawn, a jackhammer attacking the young wrinkles around the corners of his eyes.
Ray just sleeps in his flower print shirt. Ray asks no questions in his sleep; fails to ponder why his life had gone one way and not the other. And Ray has never known anything about baseball besides how to watch it. The only time the subject had ever come up between the two of them, a few years after they first met, Ray had 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.
In which Vic Hauser and Ray James reach the Gulf and sit for a spell.
Vic parks the car at the Gulf State Park just as the sky is gaining a bit of yellow. Ray wakes up blinking, and looks around quietly, 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, though he doesn’t reveal its presence in his actions. 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, the quiet respected. 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 itself out into the fading night. 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 aways, looking at the first bit of sun coming up over the horizon, the sandpipers dashing, and ghost crabs running in crab desperation from the tide.
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 sets it beside him to be removed later. In the midst of something so beautiful, it could not be tossed idly aside.
“You know, it’s Saturday,” Ray said.
Vic closes his eyes with a silent, knowing laugh, and nods.
“Sabbath used to be on Saturday.”
Looking at his friend, unsure of the implication, Vic just stares at Ray, and then looks back to the sun.
Laughing a little, Ray looks back at Vic, that secret pooling in his irises. “You ready to head back now?”
Vic smiles genuinely. He can feel the skin pulling back on his sagging cheeks. He can feel muscles he hadn’t used in a while. Kiddingly, he replies, “I thought there was no goin’ back?”
Ray chuckles and shoves his feet into the cool sand, “That’s just a sayin’. 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.”
“Ah,” Vic says, looking into a clear bright blue sky, dismissing everything—the swing, the strike, the store, the drive, all meanings. There are pelicans overhead. There is a coolness nearby. There is water everywhere and the slow, quiet morning rush of waves. “We’ll go back when we damn well feel like it and I don’t care if that’s never.”