Roy got Wonderboy and walked out into the light. A roar of recognition drowned the announcement of his name but not the loud beating of his heart. Though he’d been at bat only three days ago, it felt like years — an ageless time. He almost wept at how long it had been.
Lon Toomey, the hulking Cub hurler, who had twice in the last two weeks handed Roy his lumps, smiled behind his glove. He shot a quick glance at Fowler on second, fingered the ball, reared and threw Roy, at the plate, watched it streak by.
He toed in, his fears returning. What if the slump did not give way? How much longer could it go on without destroying him?
Toomey lifted his right leg high and threw Roy swung from his heels at a bad ball and the umpire sneezed in the breeze.
Wonderboy resembled a sagging baloney. Pop cursed the bat and some of the Knights’ rooters among the fans booed. Mike Barney’s harrowed puss looked yellow.
Roy felt sick with remorse that he hadn’t laid aside Wonderboy in the beginning and gone into the game with four licks at bat instead of only three miserable strikes, two of which he already used up. How could he explain to Barney that he had traded his kid’s life away out of loyalty to a hunk of wood?
The lady in the stands hesitantly rose for the second time. A photographer who had stationed himself nearby snapped a clear shot of her. She was an attractive woman, around thirty, maybe more, and built solid but not too big. Her bosom was neat, and her dark hair, parted on the side, hung loose and soft. A reporter approached her and asked her name but she wouldn’t give it to him, nor would she, blushing, say why she was standing now. The fans behind her hooted, ‘Down in front,’ but though her eyes showed she was troubled she remained standing.
Noticing Toomey watching her, Roy stole a quick look. He caught the red dress and a white rose, turned away, then came quickly back for another take, drawn by the feeling that her smile was for him. Now why would she do that for? She seemed to be wanting to say something, and then it flashed on him the reason she was standing was to show her confidence in him. He felt surprised that anybody would want to do that for him. At the same time he became aware that the night had spread out in all directions and was filled with an unbelievable fragrance.
A pitch streaked toward him Toomey had pulled a fast one. With a sob Roy fell back and swung.
Part of the crowd broke for the exits. Mike Barney wept freely now, and the lady who had stood up for Roy absently pulled on her white gloves and left.
The hall shot through Toomey’s astounded legs and began to climb. The second baseman, laying back on the grass on a hunch, stabbed high for it but it leaped over his straining fingers, sailed through the light and up into the dark, like a white star seeking an old constellation.
Toomey, shrunk to a pygmy, stared into the vast sky. Roy ended the bases like a Mississippi steamboat, lights lit, flags fluttering, whistle banging, coming round the bend. The Knights poured out of their dugout to pound his back, and hundreds of their rooters hopped about in the field. He stood on the home base, lifting his cap to the lady’s empty seat.
Category Archives: Fiction
Roy got Wonderboy and walked out into the light. A roar of recognition drowned the announcement of his name but not the loud beating of his heart. Though he’d been at bat only three days ago, it felt like years — an ageless time. He almost wept at how long it had been.
Ringo moved away along the pavement.
A young woman came around the corner and headed towards him.
Now this is what Grandfather had been talking about. She was dainty and elegant, and it made you feel good just to look at her. There might be clouds in the sky behind and above her, the traffic might be gushing diesel fumes and the coke brazier might be laying a pall of grit across the pavement; but when creatures like this appeared, you knew that the world wasn’t such a dump after all.
The girl was stepping neatly, smilingly around a series of puddles. As there had been no rain today that Ringo could recall, the puddles must have come from a burst water main (which perhaps the workmen were repairing), a window cleaner’s clumsily handled pail (going up as the workmen dug deeper), or the dregs of a series of teapots (tossed away by the workmen after one of their breaks).
The setting was right, the mood was right. Ringo twitched the mackintosh from his shoulders and, with a flourish which would have turned Sir Walter Raleigh pale with envy, swept it across one of the puddles as the girl approached.
She faltered, then smiled graciously and walked over it.
Ringo backed away in front of her, whisking the mackintosh away and spreading it over the following puddles. The girl laughed and Ringo laughed back at her. Yes, you had to admit it: there were more things in life than beating out four in a bar and putting your earnings in the Post Office.
Suddenly the girl disappeared. One moment she was there, the next she had gone. And Ringo’s mackintosh had gone, too. By now, well and truly in the rhythm of the thing, he had reached out to snatch the coat away and spread it over whatever dark patch appeared next. But he groped at thin air.
And then the girl was yelling. And a man’s voice, a bit muffled, was adding a bass continuo.
The man appeared. He waved something in the air to get it freed from his head and arms – and the something was Ringo’s mackintosh. And the man, his head peeping furiously over the edge of the hole in the road, had someone clinging to him. It was the girl, collapsed over his shoulder. The workman tried to straighten her up, and found himself pinned in the hole with his arms round her.
Ringo, in what might be described as a flash of intuition – though this is not how the workman was describing it right at this moment – decided that he must have spread his raincoat over space rather than over a puddle. It was an unfortunate but perfectly understandable mistake.
The trouble was that nobody seemed disposed to understand. There was a general air of unpleasant criticism about.
A smart young man came hurrying round the corner as though he had lost something or as though he were anxious to catch someone up. His sleekness matched that of the young woman and it was clear that they belonged together. It was also clear that he was hurrying to catch her up and that he had in fact lost her – down a hole in the road, into the arms of a stupefied workman.
The workman was climbing out, supporting the girl.
The young man dragged the workman’s arm away from the girl’s shoulder and hit him, careless of the strikes or go-slow decisions which might result.
Ringo decided to abandon his mackintosh. He backed cautiously away over another sequence of puddles, and then turned to run.
He ran straight into the waiting policeman.
“What’s the other possibility?”
“That we may finish the job of destroying our species ourselves,” Bateman said calmly. “I actually think that’s very possible. Not right away, because we’re all too scattered. But man is a gregarious, social animal; and eventually we’ll get back together, if only so we can tell each other stories about how we survived the great plague of 1990. Most of the societies that form are apt to be primitive dictatorships run by little Caesars unless we’re very lucky. A few may be enlightened, democratic communities, and I’ll tell you exactly what the necessary requirement for that kind of society in the 1990s and early 2000s is going to be: a community with enough technical people in it to get the lights back on. It could be done, and very easily. This isn’t the aftermath of a nuclear war, with everything laid to waste. All the machinery is just sitting there, waiting for someone to come along-the right someone, who knows how to clean the plugs and replace a few burned-out bearings – and start it up again. It’s all a question of how many of those who have been spared understand the technology we all took for granted.”
Stu sipped his beer. “Think so?”
“Sure. Bateman took a swallow of his own beer, then leaned forward and smiled grimly at Stu. “Now let me give you a hypothetical situation, Mr Stuart Redman from East Texas. Suppose we have Community A in Boston and Community Bin Utica. They are aware of each other, and each community is aware of the conditions in the other community’s camp. Society A is in good shape. They are living on Beacon Hill in the lap of luxury because one of their members just happens to be a Con Ed repairman. This guy knows just enough to get the power plant which serves Beacon Hill running again. It would mostly be a matter of knowing which switches to pull when the plant went into an automatic shutdown. Once it’s running, it’s almost all automated anyhow. The repairman can teach other members of Society A which levers to pull and which gauges to watch. The turbines run on oil, of which there is a glut, because everybody who used to use it is as dead as old Dad’s hatband. So in Boston, the juice is flowing. There’s heat against the cold, light so you can read at night, refrigeration so you can have your Scotch on the rocks like a civilized man. In fact, life is pretty damn near idyllic. No pollution. No drug problem. No race problem. No shortages. No money or barter problem, because all the goods, if not the services, are out on display and there are enough of them to last a radically reduced society for three centuries. Sociologically speaking, such a group would probably become communal in nature. No dictatorship here. The proper breeding ground for dictatorship, conditions of want, need, uncertainty, privation . . . they simply wouldn’t exist. Boston would probably end up being run by a town meeting form of government again.
“But Community B, up there in Utica. There’s no one to run the power plant. The technicians are all dead. It’s going to take a long time for them to figure out how to make things go again. In the meantime, they’re cold at night (and winter is coming), they’re eating out of cans, they’re miserable. A strongman takes over. They’re glad to have him because they’re confused and cold and sick.
Let him make the decisions. And of course he does. He sends someone to Boston with a request. Will they send their pet technician up to Utica to help them get their power plant going again? The alternative is a long and dangerous move south for the winter. So what does Community A do when they get this message?”
“They send the guy?” Stu asked.
“Christ’s testicles, no! He might be held against his will, in fact it would be extremely likely. In the post-flu world, technological know-how is going to replace gold as the most perfect medium of exchange. And in those terms, Society A is rich and Society B is poor. So what does Society B do?”
“I guess they go south,” Stu said, then grinned. “Maybe even to East Texas.”
“Maybe. Or maybe they threaten the Boston people with a nuclear warhead.”
“Right,” Stu said. “They can’t get their power plant going, but they can fire a nuclear missile at Beantown.”
Bateman said, “If it was me, I wouldn’t bother with a missile. I’d just try to figure out how to detach the warhead, then drive it to Boston in a station wagon. Think that would work?”
“Dogged if I know.”
“Even if it didn’t, there are plenty of conventional weapons around. That’s the point. All of that stuff is lying around, waiting to be picked up. And if Communities A and B both have pet technicians, they might work up some kind of rusty nuclear exchange over religion, or territoriality or some paltry ideological difference. Just think, instead of six or seven world nuclear powers, we may end up with sixty or seventy of them right here in the continental United States. If the situation were different, I’m sure that there would be fighting with rocks and spiked clubs. But the fact is, all the old soldiers have faded away and left their playthings behind. It’s a grim thing to be thinking about, especially after so many grim things have already happened . . . but I’m afraid it’s entirely possible.”
A silence fell between them.
Suddenly, I had the chilling premonition that I’d walked too far; that my grasp on 1896 was confined to the hotel itself and that, now, I would begin to lose hold and be drawn inexorably back to 1971. I closed my eyes, fighting the threat of transposition. Only after many moments did I have the courage to open my eyes and look at the hotel again. It was still there, unchanged.
When I looked at the narrow beach again, I saw her. How did I know it was her? She was little more than a tiny outline moving almost imperceptibly against the dark blue background of the water. Under any other circumstances, I could not possibly have identified her from so little evidence. As it was, I knew it had to be Elise.
The initial sight of her had caused a chill to flood my body, made my heartbeat leap. Now, the only sensation I felt was one of numbing fear that the moment wouldn’t last, that, having reached her, I’d be taken back to where I’d come from. Fear that, even if I managed to accost her, her reaction would be one of distaste at my presumption. I had, against all logic, hoped that the sight of her at long last would instil confidence in me. The exact opposite was true. My confidence was at its nadir as I stood there wondering what I could possibly say to convince her it was not some madman who confronted her.
My head seemed to be pulsing slowly, my entire body cold, as I watched her walking near the surf line, holding her long skirt above the sand. Her approach seemed dreamlike in its slowness; as though, in the instant I’d caught sight of her, time had altered itself again, seconds extended to minutes, minutes stretched to hours, Time 1 no longer in effect. Once more, I was outside the realm of clocks and calendars, condemned to watch her moving toward me through eternity, never reaching me.
In a way, it was a relief since I had no notion of what to say to her. In a larger way, however, it was torture to believe that we would never truly come together. Once again, I felt as though I were a ghost. I actually visualized her walking up to me, then by me, eyes not even moving toward me since, to her, I wouldn’t be there.
Exactly when I started toward her at an intercepting angle, I cannot recall. I first grew conscious of movement when my boots began to skid down the eroded, four-foot-high slope to the beach, then crunch across the damp sand toward the water. Adding to the dreamlike vagueness of the moment was the now nebulous sunset along the cloudy horizon and the summit of Point Loma. My eyes kept going out of focus, sometimes losing sight of her as we walked toward each other like figures on a phantom landscape. I remembered the soldier on Owl Creek Bridge moving toward his beloved yet never reaching her, because his movements were the last, fierce moments of a dying delusion. In such a manner, endlessly, Elise McKenna and I approached each other while the low waves rolled in, one by one, the noise they made as they struck the shore so unremitting that it sounded like a roar of distant wind.
When she first became aware of me, I cannot say. I only knew, for certain, that she’d seen me when she stopped and stood immobile by the water, a silhouette against the last, dim lambency of the sunset. Her eyes were on me, I could tell, though I couldn’t see her eyes or face or dream with what emotion she regarded my approach. Was it fear she felt? I had not anticipated that she might behold my coming with alarm. Our meeting had seemed so inevitable that I’d never considered such a possibility. I considered it now. If she were to bolt or scream for help, what would I do? What could I do?
At long last, I stopped in front of her and, in silence, we gazed at each other. She was shorter than I’d expected. She almost had to tilt her head back to look at my face. I couldn’t see hers at all because her back was to the sunset. Why was she so still, so motionless? I felt some relief that she was not calling out for help or turning away to run from me. Still, why no reaction at all? Was it possible she was disabled by fear? The thought unnerved me.
What I had felt while approaching her had been nothing in comparison to what I felt now. My body and mind seemed paralyzed. I could not have moved or spoken if my life had depended on it. Only one thought penetrated. Why was she, too, standing mutely, staring at me? Somehow, I sensed that it was not because of disabling fear but, beyond that, I could neither fathom her behavior nor react to it.
Then, abruptly, unexpectedly, she spoke, the sound of her voice making me start. “Is it you?” she asked.
If I had compiled a list of all the opening remarks she might have made to me, that one would have had to be on the bottom if it were there at all. I stared at her incredulously. Had some enchantment totally beyond my visions taken place so that she knew about me? I could not believe it. Yet I did sense, -within a moment after she had spoken, that I had the miraculous opportunity to bypass what might be hours of persuading her to accept me. “Yes, Elise,” I heard myself answer.
He attempted to climb the bridge, but in vain; he dug his nails in between the stones and clung there for a few seconds, but the layers were as smoothly joined as if the wall had been new — Radoub fell back. The conflagration swept on, each instant growing more terrible. They could see the heads of the three children framed in the red light of the window. In his frenzy Radoub shook his clenched hand at the sky, and shouted, “Is there no mercy yonder!”
The mother, on her knees, clung to one of the piers, crying, “Mercy, mercy!”
The hollow sound of cracking timbers rose above the roar of the flames. The panes of glass in the book-cases of the library cracked and fell with a crash. It was evident that the timber-work had given way. Human strength could do nothing. Another moment and the whole would fall. The soldiers only waited for the final catastrophe. They could hear the little voices repeat “Mamma! mamma!”
The whole crowd was paralyzed with horror. Suddenly, at the casement near that where the children stood, a tall form appeared against the crimson background of the flames.
Every head was raised — every eye fixed. A man was above there — a man in the library — in the furnace. The face showed black against the flames, but they could see the white hair: they recognized the Marquis de Lantenac. He disappeared, then appeared again.
The indomitable old man stood in the window shoving out an enormous ladder. It was the escape-ladder deposited in the library; he had seen it lying upon the floor and dragged it to the window. He held it by one end; with the marvellous agility of an athlete he slipped it out of the casement, and slid it along the wall down into the ravine.
Radoub folded his arms about the ladder as it descended within his reach, crying, “Long live the Republic!”
The marquis shouted, “Long live the King!”
Radoub muttered, “You may cry what you like, and talk nonsense if you please, but you are an angel of mercy all the same.”
The ladder was safely grounded, and communication established between the burning floor and the ground. Twenty men rushed up, Radoub at their head, and in the twinkling of an eye they were hanging to the rungs from the top to the bottom, making a human ladder. Radoub, on the topmost rung, touched the window. He had his face turned toward the conflagration. The little army scattered among the heath and along the sides of the ravine pressed forward, overcome by contending emotions, upon the plateau, into the ravine, out on the platform of the tower.
The marquis disappeared again, then re-appeared bearing a child in his arms. There was a tremendous clapping of hands.
The marquis had seized the first little one that he found within reach. It was Gros-Alain.
Gros-Alain cried, “I am afraid.”
The marquis gave the boy to Radoub; Radoub passed him on to the soldier behind, who passed him to another, and just as Gros-Alain, greatly frightened and sobbing loudly, was given from hand to hand to the bottom of the ladder, the marquis, who had been absent for a moment returned to the window with René-Jean, who struggled and wept and beat Radoub with his little fists as the marquis passed him on to the sergeant.
The marquis went back into the chamber that was now filled with flames. Georgette was there alone. He went up to her. She smiled. This man of granite felt his eyelids grow moist. He asked, “What is your name?”
“Orgette,” said she.
He took her in his arms – she was still smiling, and, at the instant he handed her to Radoub, that conscience so lofty, and yet so darkened, was dazzled by the beauty of innocence: the old man kissed the child.
“It is the little girl!” said the soldiers; and Georgette in her turn descended from arm to arm till she reached the ground, amid cries of exultation. They clapped their hands; they leaped; the old grenadiers sobbed, and she smiled at them.
The mother stood at the foot of the ladder breathless, mad, intoxicated by this change — flung, without a pause, from hell into paradise. Excess of joy lacerates the heart in its own way. She extended her arms; she received first Gros-Alain, then René-Jean, then Georgette. She covered them with frantic kisses, then burst into a wild laugh, and fainted.
A great cry rose: “They are all saved!”
All were indeed saved, except the old man.
But no one thought of him — not even he himself, perhaps. He remained for a few instants leaning against the window-ledge lost in a reverie, as if he wished to leave the gulf of flames time to make a decision. Then, without the least haste, slowly indeed and proudly, he stepped over the window-sill, and erect, upright, his shoulders against the rungs, having the conflagration at his back, the depth before him, he began to descend the ladder in silence with the majesty of a phantom. The men who were on the ladder sprang off; every witness shuddered; about this man thus descending from that height there was a sacred horror as about a vision. But he plunged calmly into the darkness before him; they recoiled, he drew nearer them; the marble pallor of his face showed no emotion; his haughty eyes were calm and cold; at each step he made toward those men whose wondering eyes gazed upon him out of the darkness, he seemed to tower higher, the ladder shook and echoed under his firm tread — one might have thought him the statue of the commandatore descending anew into his sepulchre.
As the marquis reached the bottom, and his foot left the last rung and planted itself on the ground, a hand seized his shoulder. He turned about.
“I arrest you,” said Cimourdain.
“I approve of what you do,” said Lantenac.
At the first phone booth he came to, Max stepped inside and pulled the door closed. He bent down, and with considerable difficulty, since the built had not been built for the purpose of removing a shoe, he unlaced his right oxford, slipped it from his foot, then straightened and spoke into the sole, while listening at the heel.
Max: 86 here – that you, Chief?
Chief: What took you so long? I’ve been ringing you for a good ten minutes!
Max: Sorry, Chief. I was indisposed.
Chief: Oh . . . in the shower?
Max: No, taking a stroll . . . enjoying the carbon monoxide on Madison Avenue. It’s lovely at this time of year.
Chief: Max, I need you right away. There’s another crisis. How soon can you –
Max (interrupting): Excuse me, Chief. Hang on a second.
Max turned toward the door of the booth, where, outside, a matronly middle-aged woman was rapping on the glass. He opened the door a crack and spoke to her.
“Sorry, Madam,” he said, “this booth is in use.”
“I have to make a call,” the woman said irritably.
“This isn’t a dressing room, it’s a telephone booth. If you want to change your shoes, find a shoe store.”
“Madam, I happen to be on the phone,” Max said.
“You are not. The phone is on the hook.”
Max glanced back over his shoulder. “Oh . . . that phone.” Then, facing the woman again, he said, “It so happens, Madam, that I’m talking through my shoe. Now . . . if you’ll excuse me . . .”
He pulled the door closed, and resumed his conversation with the Chief.
Max: Sorry, Chief. A little misunderstanding with a civilian. Now . . . what were you saying?
Chief: I said there’s a crisis afoot. And, following our procedure of assigning cases by rotation, your number came up. I need you here at Control right away. How soon can you –
Max (interrupting again): Chief . . . can you hold on? That civilian is back. I’ll just be a second.
The middle-aged matron had returned, accompanied by a uniformed policeman. The policeman had rapped on the glass with his night stick. Once more, Max opened the door a crack.
“Yes, officer, what can I do for you?” Max said.
“That’s a telephone booth, buddy,” the policeman said. “And this lady wants to make a call.”
“Officer, as I told the lady, the booth is in use,” Max said. “I’m making a call myself. A very important call. If it’s anything like most of my calls, the fate of the whole civilized world may hang in the balance.”
“Now I believe him!” the woman snorted. “He told me he was talking through his hat!”
“My shoe, Madam!” Max said. “I said my shoe – I’m talking through my shoe.” He opened the door the rest of the way and handed his oxford to the policeman. “Here, officer, try it yourself. The Chief is on the line. He’ll explain it to you.”
Suspiciously, the policeman accepted the phone.
“No, no, you speak into the sole,” Max said. “The heel is for listening.”
The policeman turned the shoe around.
“Go ahead,” Max said. “Say, ‘Hello, Chief’ or something like that. Just don’t ask him about his rheumatism – it’s a very sore point.
The policeman spoke. “Chief . . .?”
As a reply came back, his mouth dropped open. Then, after a second, he said, “Sure, Chief, I understand. I thought he was a nut. Naturally, when he –” He listened again. Then, nodding, said, “Right, you can count on me. The fate of the whole civilized world is very important to me, too.”
The policeman handed the shoe back to Max, then turned to the matron. “Sorry, lady,” he said, “this booth is in use.”
Aziz grew more excited. He rose in his stirrups and pulled at his horse’s head in the hope it would rear. Then he should feel in a battle. He cried: “Clear out, all you Turtons and Burtons. We wanted to know you ten years back—now it’s too late. If we see you and sit on your committees, it’s for political reasons, don’t you make any mistake.” His horse did rear. “Clear out, clear out, I say. Why are we put to so much suffering? We used to blame you, now we blame ourselves, we grow wiser. Until England is in difficulties we keep silent, but in the next European war—aha, aha! Then is our time.” He paused, and the scenery, though it smiled, fell like a gravestone on any human hope. They cantered past a temple to Hanuman— God so loved the world that he took monkey’s flesh upon him— and past a Saivite temple, which invited to lust, but under the semblance of eternity, its obscenities bearing no relation to those of our flesh and blood. They splashed through butterflies and frogs; great trees with leaves like plates rose among the brushwood. The divisions of daily life were returning, the shrine had almost shut.
“Who do you want instead of the English? The Japanese?” jeered Fielding, drawing rein.
“No, the Afghans. My own ancestors.”
“Oh, your Hindu friends will like that, won’t they?”
“It will be arranged— a conference of oriental statesmen.”
“It will indeed be arranged.”
“Old story of ‘We will rob every man and rape every woman from Peshawar to Calcutta,’ I suppose, which you get some nobody to repeat and then quote every week in the Pioneer in order to frighten us into retaining you! We know!” Still he couldn’t quite fit in Afghans at Mau, and, finding he was in a corner, made his horse rear again until he remembered that he had, or ought to have, a mother- land. Then he shouted: “India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort! Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one! Hurrah! Hurrah for India! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
India a nation! What an apotheosis! Last corner to the drab nineteenth-century sisterhood! Waddling in at this hour of the world to take her seat! She, whose only peer was the Holy Roman Empire, she shall rank with Guatemala and Belgium perhaps! Fielding mocked again. And Aziz in an awful rage danced this way and that, not knowing what to do, and cried: “Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty or five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then “—he rode against him furiously— “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”
But the horses didn’t want it— they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”