The meals are generally warm and agreeable in this establishment, the last one down here along the highway before you get to Stony Mountain. They all know me in here; got my table ’round back near the bandstand where all they ever play is goddamned “Waltzing Matilda” over and over, as if they might just conjure up another Gallipoli simply by doing so. My reflection sits at the bottom of my beer mug, waiting for me to pull it out. Once, I was of the inclination to do so, but thought better of it. We each have to learn to make it on our own in this world.
The shoulder stiffens in the dry, brittle air of winter’s Colorado. Jesus died at 33, and I ain’t planning on kicking the bucket just yet, and yes, that crown of thorns must’ve been one sonovabitch, but mister, until you’ve awakened at 4:00 a.m. after a hundred curveballs, and twice as many fastballs, well, all I’m sayin’ is, don’t come cryin’ to me about sin and redemption. We all get squeezed sometimes.
Flaky Lacy over there says she’s seen my picture in a newspaper brought back from the East. Says she thinks I was famous, playing some game of Ball or something. Showed me the headline, and the picture of a dark-eyed, serious looking kid of the age when youth sets, then begins to die. The camera captured the image the instant before the melting began, when first you lose your heater, then your heart. Finally, they take your name and put it in a magazine. Might as well be an obituary.
Tried second-base once. It didn’t take.
I could hit a little. Batted .366 years after I couldn’t comb my own hair with my right hand. They say your body compensates for itself so that one part of it grows stronger when another part shuts down. Well, the wrong part grew stronger, sir. The memory of the ball just whistling out of my right hand, effortless as a young girl dancing barefoot in summer’s backyard — all lemonade and perfumed air — gets stronger and sharper. It cuts and slashes leaving nothing but the wound of youth.
Maybe I’ll leave this land of the Ute, and head back East after all. Got a cousin in Connecticut. Said I could get a job in New Haven teaching pitching. I could get down to Boston once in a while, I suppose. Sit with the old men in the bleachers, talking about the way things used to be. How the young fellers of today don’t know how to play the game the way we once did. Clean balls now, and everyone hits a homer, drives a car, and owns a radio.
Ran into a man on my way out of here yesterday. Said he was a reporter. Asked me to come back in and have one more for the road. Said to me, “You was Smokey Joe Wood.” I said, “I guess I still am, but for the part that refers to my right arm.” He laughed and shook his head. “Don’t know how you do it,” he pondered. “Why, whatever do you mean, sir?” I retorted. He held off for a moment, bottom jaw cranky with doubt. Foamy beer clung to his lips and chin, leaving him looking like a bearded Greta Garbo.
“You had the world once,” he started. “You were literally ‘King of the Hill’, and no one could knock you off your perch.” He stared at me now, in the same way mortals first came to detest the fallen Gods of old when Olympus would no longer shelter them. “How do you get on with it at all?” His question lingered in the air, like the moment after the first drop of rain, but before the second. It insinuated a dark chasm that I had heretofore generally avoided.
“I don’t get on with it at all,” I responded. “I simply play dead, and it gets tired and moves along on its way. It is dumb, sir, and spends time fretting over its feces, and pulling thorns from its feet. Me, I adjust the shadows so they cloak me when I sleep, and when I arrive at a new destination, they always arrive a step behind me, lapping at the sunlit, dappled ground.”
I paid my tab and left that place. On the way out of Ouray, on a cannonball headed to the Atlantic, I spotted a ballgame out my window. A barefoot boy, bat on his shoulder, turned to look at the train barreling by his little, brown diamond. He waved, perhaps not at me, but at the image of speed and power that captured his imagination.
I thought I knew just how he felt. I waved back, (just in case), head resting against the cool windowpane, eyes closed now, and said goodbye.