g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Frank Djilaski leaned on the bat like the great ones used to, right foot crossed in front of the other, left hand resting casually on the hip.
“So what’s with the bat, mister?” asked the rent-a-cop, a rail-thin young man with flushed cheeks and a tuft of dirty-brown hair that stuck out from the back of his cap like a tumor.
“I use it as a walking stick,” said Frank.
They stood in front of the Neiman Marcus store at the Mayfair Mall in a northern suburb of Chicago. Around them, shoppers strolled as washed-out New Age music droned in the background and pointless footsteps echoed on polished floors.
“A walking stick? Sir, I’ve never heard of anyone carrying a baseball bat as a walking stick.”
“Well, young man, if you knew anything about Ernie Banks, then you wouldn’t find it so strange. He used an extra long bat. To reach the outside corner. Perfect for a walking stick.” He held the bat up at eye level to show Banks’ autograph.
“You’re going to have to leave, sir. Or I’ll have to confiscate your bat. My regulations tell me you’re carrying a weapon.”
“If you knew anything about Ernie Banks, you’d know this was no weapon. It was Kandinsky’s brush. Hemingway’s pen. Toscanini’s baton.”
The rent-a-cop stared at him blankly.
The bat was a Louisville Slugger, scuffed and faded, a gift from his parents in the fifties when he’d memorized every Chicago Cub’s batting average and earned run average and every National League team’s won-loss percentage. It hadn’t mattered to the boy that the Cubs were perpetual losers. The Cubs were the Cubs, and Banks, the slugging shortstop, was Mr. Cub, always undeterred. No matter if the team had lost ten in a row and faced the prospect of a double header against the league-leading Dodgers, Banks was ready to play, and he pulled everyone along with his enthusiasm, his hope. His belief in a horizon.
So today, when Frank had no horizon, he carried the well-worn bat from a distant past.
Five minutes later, Frank Djilaski stood outside the south entrance to the Mayfair Mall. The day reminded him of a Sunday afternoon with his father at Wrigley Field. He’d turned ten and his birthday gift was two seats in the bleachers to see the Cubs play the Pirates. The Cubs lost, as expected, but Frank remembered the deep green grass, the brightness of the chalk lines and the Cubs’ uniforms, the way the sound of Banks’ bat carried when he hit a home run down the left field line, and his father’s laugh when the ball clamored around the seats before a guy four or five rows in back of them snatched it from the air.
Frank looked around to see if there were more rent-a-cops. He’d given the young man no trouble. He left with his bat over his shoulder and a firm resolve to wait for Matthew Berg outside the Mall. It was only a minor change in plans. He knew where Berg’s car was and where he was shopping and who was with him. He had it all worked out. There was no reason to ruin his plan by arguing with someone who had no idea how the future bore down on a man like stinging sleet, or how majestic the sound of Banks’ bat was on a Sunday afternoon in 1960.
Frank had worked his entire adult life for Empire Air Lines—till they’d dismissed him five months ago. They’d told him that he, along with roughly three thousand other employees, would not be receiving pensions since the company was in bankruptcy and, so sorry, the money just wasn’t there.
Frank looked over at the emerald green Porsche with the personalized Illinois license plate emblazoned with “Fountainhead.” He’d followed the car for several weeks, and knew that Matthew Berg shopped at the mall every Tuesday afternoon with his teenage daughter. It was close to three, about the time Berg and his daughter would emerge from the entrance and walk over to the Porsche, which would then drive to Evanston and drop off the daughter at the elegant Craftsman Style home where Berg’s ex-wife lived. It had been a nasty divorce, splashed all over the papers, and the parents only spoke when their daughter was in trouble, which was often.
Frank assumed Ernie Banks’ batting stance. He’d never forgotten it. He’d copied the stance in Little League but never had the chance to use it much because he mostly rode the bench. Now he stood with his back slightly hunched and his legs wide apart. He recalled how Banks would stand far back in the batter’s box, his right foot on the rear chalk line, to have a fuller view of the curveball. Like Banks, he clutched the bat down near the end, both hands pressed tightly around the narrow handle, fingers wiggling and flexing, like anxious trigger fingers. Frank glanced around to see that no one was near. He swung. The whoosh of air was exhilarating. He nodded, then resumed his position leaning on the bat, waiting, like the great ones used to.
Frank felt the muscles in his chest tighten when he saw Berg. Over the past months he’d fallen asleep, if one could call it that, with the man’s face on his mind. The tan. The black hair with distinguished-looking gray streaks. The square, Clutch-Cargo chin. Berg was over six foot tall and muscular. He looked like a forty-something film star, not a fifty-something businessman. Frank could see the father in the daughter’s runway-model face. She was sixteen, tall, brunette. Your basic knockout, without a trace of the young girl that must have been there just months before.
Frank was much shorter than Berg. The sun shone off his nearly bald head and his shirt was damp with sweat. He was keenly aware that his beer-and-Doritos-fed paunch had grown; it jiggled when he swung. He was a mongrel waiting for a purebred. But he had his bat, and that changed everything.
“Mr. Berg,” he said, using his best customer-relations smile. The one he’d used Monday through Friday and every third Saturday at the Empire check-in counter for four decades at O’Hare. Still leaning on his bat, he was ten feet away from the man and his daughter.
The two approached. Berg frowned. He eyed Frank’s Empire Airlines lapel pin—gold wings against a blue outline of North America. Frank had worn it every day since being let go. Berg spoke softly. “Honey, you go on to the car. I’ll be just a minute.” His daughter’s nose wrinkled when she walked past Frank, as if she were avoiding a splotch of road kill busy with flies.
“Do I know you?” asked Berg, whose furrowed forehead had become as smooth as polished brass.
“No. But I know you. You’re Matthew Berg, the director of Fountainhead Investments.”
“You handled Empire Airline’s bankruptcy, correct?”
“My company did, yes. I had no direct role in the deal. And who are you, sir?”
“I worked for Empire, till they downsized me. And I lost my pension.”
“That’s unfortunate. But things will look up. We saved the company, you’re aware of that I’m sure. Without us, Empire wouldn’t even exist.”
“But the pension. My pension. I’m sixty-two. And my wife and I have never been able to save much. How are we going to live on just the social security?”
“I really have to go. I’m sorry, really, but there’s nothing I can do. My advice to you is: turn to the stock market. It may be down now, but it always roars back. Do some investing, and you’ll be on your feet before you know it. Just look at the numbers. They never lie. Like in baseball: the numbers never lie.”
Berg walked past Frank, who held his arm out and touched the man’s sleeve.
“Now hold it,” said Berg. He raised his finger, as if to emphasize a point, cocked his head to the right. Frank drew his hand away.
“I’m sixty-two, hear me?” said Frank. “What kind of investments do you think I have? Where am I going to find another job? And my pension…”
“Look, I’m going to have to ask you to stop or I’ll call the police and charge you with harassment. You must know that your company had huge and unwarranted obligations to its employees, like the pension fund. How they got themselves into that position with their union, I’ll never know. They just weren’t viable any longer with that kind of burden. Something had to give. My firm did its best to improve their situation. Fountainhead made them leaner and meaner and put them back on their feet. The dismissals and pension problems, well, there’s little we could do about that. There’s always some discomfort in these cases. You should blame your company for its mismanagement. And the union, too, if you need to blame someone.”
Frank shook his head but said nothing. Discomfort. Yes, discomfort. He stood with his legs spread, Ernie Banks-style, and raised the bat behind his right ear. His fingers twirled and rippled around the handle. He leaned forward slightly, his back forming a shallow arch. Berg backed away, his hands outstretched as if he were pushing against an invisible wall.
He expected to hear the whoosh of air and feel the exhilaration of a Jack-in-the-Box finally released. Instead, a loud explosion rose to the top of the suburban sound pyramid. Was it a sonic boom? A natural gas explosion? Whatever it was, it blotted out any sound that might have been possible in that instant—a shout, a motorcycle revving, a man’s gasp, a dog’s bark, a girl’s scream, the dull thud of a watermelon bursting from a single hard blow, a cell phone keypad’s urgent electronic beep, someone shouting “call 911! My God, call 911!”
Frank gripped the bat behind his left ear now, holding his follow-through, placing all his weight on his front foot.
He thought about the small plastic figurine of Banks he’d once had in that position. He would go to bed at night imagining that follow-through, that frozen moment just after the bat had made its electric passage through the strike zone. He thought about how Banks must have felt after taking the perfect swing and watching the ball rocket into the bleachers, where a ten-year-old sat with his father. And how Mr. Cub, the genial, gentle man with the broad smile, came to bat 9,421 times in his career and hit 512 home runs.
Another thought suddenly abraded his memory. Ernie Banks had also struck out 1,236 times. One thousand two hundred and thirty-six. Multiply that by three, and you have at least 3,708 strikes, not counting foul balls and all the strikes Banks must have had in other at-bats that didn’t end in strikeouts. How many swings and misses were there among those strikes? And had the ten-year-old known if Banks’ plastic-figurine follow-through came at the end of a swing and a miss, or after a home run? Had he known if the whoosh of air brought a resounding thunderclap that echoed through the stadium and beyond, or only the rustling of the disappointed crowd? It was impossible to know, a mystery drifting on the Lake Michigan breezes swirling through Wrigley Field.
Frank relaxed. He lowered the bat to his side and began to walk to the parking lot, where he’d left his gray Hyundai several hours before. Oblivious to the commotion and the gathering crowd, he walked as if he had not a care in the world, the way the great ones used to.
Rudy Koshar is a writer and historian whose short stories have appeared in Revolution House, Forge, Blinking Cursor, Eclectica, Sleetmagazine, and Thunder Sandwich. His “Fallen Magi” won second place in the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters 2013 Fiction Contest, and will appear in Wisconsin People & Ideas. His nonfiction work in European history (four books, three edited volumes, dozens of articles and essays) has won Guggenheim and other awards. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he lives with his wife of forty years. Read more of his work here.