Excerpt: Not in Their League (A Novel)
Not in Their League
A novel by Jerry Tuck
This work is dedicated to Jimmy, Jake and Scout, grandchildren supreme.
“All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing.”
“It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
“They say that time heals everything, but only time will tell.”
Patterson Hood, Drive-by Truckers
“The Golden Years feel more like Days of Quicksilver.”
Chapter 1: Goth’s at the Gate
The visiting team’s quarterback takes a six-step drop and sets up to pass. The hulks on the Offensive Line circle around their main man like Conestoga wagons prepared for an Apache attack. Suddenly a blitzing Visigoth defensive back blasts through the protection. The sacked Q.B. is hit so hard that his helmet is ripped off. It stops rolling at the feet of the Line Judge. The T.V. cameraman zooms in on the helmet as if checking to see if the head is still inside. The slo-mo replay of the sack on the three story high stadium scoreboard brings a roar from partisan home crowd.
When an even bigger cheer goes up behind him, the sideline cameraman instinctively swivels around to see what’s up. What he shows the TV audience is a Goth fan leading cheers like a demented orchestra conductor.
“I think we got some competition over in the peanut gallery,” the TV Play-by-Play guy chuckles. Off camera he growls, “Get the fool off the screen,” but the handlers in the TV van order the cameraman to stay on the shot.
“Go, Goths. Go Goths,” the Goth fan yells. His is leaning against the rail, exhorting the hundreds of rabid fans in his section to yell along. A camera on the rim of that bowl shows a close-up: the fan looks like a cross between a Viking having a bad hair day (a Norseman warrior not the Goth’s arch football rivals in Minnesota) and a member of a Wagnerian chorus. His face is streaked in the sickly green and blue team colors. His eyes are rimmed in red. No one can tell if the red is from a tough night or the pregame tailgate party but some think it might just be insanity. Blood-red braids of yard drape over the bear rug he wears like a cape. “Number One Goth Fan” is written in scarlet across the team jersey underneath. The jersey is emblazoned with a huge number one, of course.
“Get the bum off the field,” one fan near the camera screams. He isn’t looking at the reply screen, though. He is pointing at the leveled, unconscious enemy quarterback.
The #1 Goth Fan glares in the direction of the un-cool comment. His section picks up their cue and a tsunami of jeers wash over the wiseass. Embarrassed on national TV, the targeted fan decides it’s a great time to visit the bathroom.
The camera finally turns back to the field. When the Visigoth Offensive unit jogs in, Barry Bob Bettison, the Goth quarterback, detours over to his still-prone counterpart. Barry Bob goes down on one knee. When he whispers and gently caresses the side of the injured opponent’s helmet, the stadium clucks like hens in a hatchery.
“That Barry Bob is SUCH a nice boy” the Play-by-Play guy gushes.
“He’s one of the good ones.” The Color Guy whispers, as if Barry Bob has just begun distributing fish and bread to the masses. Most of this crowd would pass on the food and hold out for the bottomless wine carafes but that, of course, is a horse of a different biblical color.
“A real All American, all American, for sure” says the TV Play-by-Play guy. His booth partner groans theatrically.
The game over and the Goth’s proud owners of another W in the win-loss column, their #1 Fan jogs to his car. The legs of the animal who gave its life for his costume wave behind him. Some fans wave back. Others try to high-five him as he trots by. In the parking lot, fans ask him to stop and pose for pictures or autographs. Unable to be detoured, though, the premier Goth Fan keeps moving as if late to catch a bus or a plane.
Free of the post-game traffic, #1 Fan pulls into an AM/PM market. An empty duffel over his shoulder, he rushes toward the bathroom. The Indian lady at the register tosses him the bathroom key like a quarterback. He catches it in stride and unlocks the door. “Thanks, Padma.”
“Hey, Hagar,” a customer yells, saluting with a twelve pack of Keystone.
Moments later William Winters pops out of the Men’s room in business casual, carrying the now full duffel like a sea bag.
“Will?” Padma, working the register, swipes at the side of her face. Will’s reflection in the window shows him that he’s missed a big blob of green and blue paint on his left cheek. Padma hands him a wad of napkins and Will slips her a ten-dollar tip.
As the lot guy printed out my rental car receipt, I took inventory. I had my work bags. All evidence of my Goth alter-ego was gone. Heading for the stairs, I made a mental note to buy my wife, Daffy, flowers and candy for reminding me to grab my Goth costume on the rush out the door that morning. The Visigoth win made the business trip to L.A. tolerable. Not even being submarined by a business colleague masquerading as my friend could drag me down after being on national T.V. during a Goth win.
The crowd at the gate slowed me down, though. Even seconds away from Friday night officially becoming Saturday, the airline gate was still a cattle call. Smiling patiently, I let the lowing herd of suits and ties pull me toward the turnstile. The attendant was reaching for my boarding pass when a businessman on a cell phone shouldered me out of his way. His phone conversation never missed a beat.
Determined to enjoy the day to its end, I let his rudeness slide. The gate attendant did not. We made eye contact. I got it, she nodded. I glanced down at her name tag and mouthed “Thanks, Shirley.” The still-yapping businessman tried to push his way into the tunnel but Shirley calmly moved to her left to block his way. Inspecting his colored boarding pass, she cooed in a mock sympathy.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir, but we are only boarding silver cards right now. Blue is last. We’ll call your group shortly.”
“That’s what the color means, huh? But all the overheads will be gone.”
“Please step back with that group over there, sir.”
After dodging the businessman’s elbow as he U-turned, I smiled at the attendant. “Nice work, Shirley.”
“What do you mean, Sir.”
“It’s Will and I mean that you handled that very well.”
“Well, thanks, Will. I appreciate your concern but I really do live for that shit. And I still need to check your boarding pass, Slick.”
Inside the plane, I was still chuckling. Unfortunately, I was reaching up to stow my gear in the overhead, when someone goosed me. Looking back, I was grateful to see that the culprit was just a lady traveler’s huge purse. She looked me up and down as if I was about to snatch said purse.
“I’m in the main aisle right now.”
I looked at her as if she might be crazy. “Yes, Ma’am, you are.”
She looked back at me like she knew I was crazy. “I’ll be taking a seat as soon as this strange man in front of me gives me some privacy.”
“You talking to me, lady?”
“I am on the phone,” she snarled at me, pointing to a contraption stuck in the opposite side of her head. “Harriet said traffic here is worse than the Nimitz. Who woulda thunk it but it was. I swear. I’m in row 25 and…”
Over the intercom a flight attendant warned that we could not leave the gate until all cell phones were turned off. Everyone near Ms. Magpie stared daggers at her but she prattled on, unabated.
“Someone is still talking. All cell phones off, please.”
Magpie held up a finger as if she was on the phone to the Security Exchange Commissioner. The glassy-eyed attendant shook her head. “Ma’am, we have passengers who would like to get home before dawn.”
“Honey, they are being so mean to me. They want me to…”
“Turn the goddamned thing off, lady” sang a chorus of passengers.
“That’s where they should throw your frigging phone” a male passenger growled. “And hopefully you in with it, you dumb bitch.”
The demonized caller was undeterred. Still looking at the barbarians around her, she gave sprung a Hindenburg-sized leak as the flight attendant leaned over and closed her phone for her.
To me, her imposed silence was better than an in-flight porno movie or unlimited drinks coupons. Until I noticed Mr. All Business, recently rebuffed by my new best friend, Shirley, bearing down on me. I could tell by the muscles twitching in his jaw that I was his destination.
“You’re in my seat, buddy.” His smile was that of a viper.
Bingo. I looked up at him with my own reptilian smile. “There are no assigned seats, Buddy. First come, first served.”
“Get out of my seat, asshole.”
The passengers were ready to riot. Their second round of collective groans and curses eased off, though, as Shirley came sidestepping toward us.
“This guy is in my seat. Unless you want Ali and Frazier all over again, take him to a safe place in the back. I fly this airline every week and…”
“Oh no, we wouldn’t want a regular customer to be inconvenienced. We can’t have that.” Shirley was all teeth as she interrupted the bully. Turning to me, she frowned. “Could you come with me, sir?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about,” growled the rude passenger.
I gave Shirley a trusting look and stood up and got my carryon. The businessman all but mauled me getting past me and into my old seat. When he was all strapped in, Shirley smiled sweetly to him but spoke to me. “There has been a mistake, Sir,” she said, obviously playing to the whole section. “You’re in First Class. Right this way.”
“First Class?” Mr. All Business nearly levitated out of his new seat.
As Shirley took my hand the passengers around us gave her a sitting ovation. Actually, it was more of a stooped ovation because of the overhead storage compartments. Shirley bowed and reached over to close the phone Ms. Mag Pie was trying to redial. Then she led me up the aisle to First Class. With a flourish, she pulled the curtains behind us.
Soon I was sipping a free Dewar’s on the rocks. I looked out the window, making a mental note to write a letter to the airlines and let them know what a treasure they had in Shirley. But how did I ask for Shirley’s last name without it coming out like some slimy pickup line? Suddenly, there was a shout from the tunnel. The nearest flight attendant swung the bulkhead door back open. Still looking at the activity outside on the tarmac, I tried not to groan out loud when a heavy frame plopped down in the nice, wide, till-then-empty seat next to me. When my late aisle mate mumbled a twangy apology, I glanced over to acknowledge him. The owner of the drawl was Barry Bob Bettison, the Visigoth’s star Q.B. The same QB I had just watched win the Goth game earlier that night. I gagged and passed a jigger of scotch out both nostrils. As the cabin door was being secured once again, Barry Bob handed me a monogrammed handkerchief littered with B’s and directed me to random drops of scotch on my chin.
“That had to hurt, son.”
“Only if I breathe too my dose.”
“You must be a Gotheroo to recognize me in street clothes. I usually have to do this.” Barry Bob held two fingers horizontally across his face. “Get it?”
“Juh, Juh, John Travolta in Puh, puh, Pulp Fiction?”
“No, buddy. The fingers are my facemask. Are you okay?”
I couldn’t control the sudden stutter I’d developed so I just nodded. Embarrassed, I grabbed the refill a smiling attendant had been trying to hand to me. The ice clinked in the crystal glass because she was giggling at me. Sees celebrities every day and night, I figured. At least she didn’t do a snort-laugh at my expense.
“He’s a fan,” Barry Bob said to her, nodding at me. “I love being recognized, don’t get me wrong, but can we get this show on the road? I got a morning meeting to prepare for.” Barry Bob looked at me. “Commissioner wants to see me.”
Impressed, I worked overtime on my second scotch as the plane rose over the endless lights of Los Angeles below. I started to gear up for my usual internal monologue about how much power all those twinkling lights and swimming pools drew, but Barry Bob was wired and talking like a Raver on X; the drug, not the cerveza. Still in shock, I let Barry Bob do all the talking. Like I had a choice. One way conversations didn’t seem to bother him at all. Pleasantly buzzed myself, I made another mental note; mark this down on the calendar as the best damned Friday of my life.
“…and then they wanted to talk about a contract extension and I say to myself, ‘Self?’ “ Barry actually waited me out until I laughed at the old, moss-covered joke. “I say to myself, self, I’d play this here game for nothing. I even hate taking these ole boys’ money. It’s the love of my life, outside my Ma and Pa. But what would Sidney say?”
“Sidney being your Pa?”
“Sidney being my agent, son.”
The giggling attendant was back.
“Drink, sir. Sirs?”
Barry Bob waved a vigorous finger in her face. “My body is a temple and my livelihood. The only alcohol I allow is the stuff they rub on sore muscles.”
I declined a third scotch and changed the subject.
“So, uh, you’re headed up, you know, to a big meeting, huh?”
“Huge. I trust the owners. They’ll do right by me. I’m more worried about getting the team in The Bowl, know what ah mean? I was a Ram fan and they skedaddled. Al Davis broke my heart when he didn’t move the Raiders to Irwindale. I could a jumped off my surfboard and been at the game in half an hour. He finally brings the Raiders down to L.A. and then jerks them away and jerks off all the fans as well, pardon my Francais. I’m a fan at heart. I’d play the game free, son.”
“Yeah. You said that.”
“And I mean it. Surely do. Best game in the world. I feel privileged to walk on the field with my teammates, I can tell you that. I’ll tell you something else, too. I feel like I died and done gone to Hog Heaven.”
“Don’t say that too loud. Washington needs a quarterback real bad.”
Barry Bob thought about that for a second and guffawed. “Hog Heaven. Offensive line was called The Hogs. Washington Redskins. That was like ages ago but I get it.”
I was still floating even as I hoofed it across the dark acres of Oakland Airport’s Economy Parking. Even searching for the omnipresent white pool car because the key tag didn’t have a license number, didn’t faze me. Like a contented zombie, I stumbled onto the car before too long. There was only one green lit toll booth available and I was in line for it when an SUV cut me off. Of course the driver was talking on her cell phone. Probably Mrs. Cell Phone getting the last laugh. So what? I had just hung out with my hero. Nothing was going to take off that glow. Nothing.
The lights of San Francisco slid off of Will’s rearview mirror as if it was made of ice. A cool wind from his open window caressed the left side of his face as he meticulously kept the pool car at sixty miles per hour. He knew he wasn’t drunk but why risk ending the trip on a downer note? Why ruin the best Friday of his life? It was a good question. And his reasoning was reasonable and civic minded. He was tired but adrenaline was keeping him awake and aware. As he drove through Marin County, Will had no reason to worry about anything. The theme song for his ride might have been Drop-Kick Murphys’ Going Out In Style. His glow would last for just a few minutes more.
Somewhere in the darkness behind Will, as the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge blipped off his rearview mirror and his speedometer yearned for triple digits, Dieter “The Duke” Dunkle was closing the gap on Will’s pool car. The theme song for Dieter’s northern drive home would be an old Doors tune. “There’s a killer on road, his brain is squirming like a toad.” Dieter’s Friday had been a disaster. His hour-plus commute time had tripled; Critical Mass, a group of bicycling activist protesting the commuter car pollution, had stopped traffic and turned the Golden Gate into a parking lot. Rewriting a quarterly report that had been assassinated by a power spike had taken him until midnight. He had had to threaten the service manager with eternal litigation unless he let Dieter retrieved his beloved Beemer from the long-closed shop. The final straw had been the fact that the BMW tune-up had cost him more than he’d paid for his wife’s used American gas hog.
Two hundred short yards ahead of Dieter, a red Acura driven by Mimi Como swerved toward the fast lane without a signal. Fresh out of an open bar bachelorette party at Andalu, a tapas restaurant on Guerrero and Mission, Mimi was feeling no pain. The sound track for her drive to Santa Rosa would have to be Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” She d didn’t see Dieter’s low beams behind her. She had adjusting her rearview down to check her makeup. With her free hand she was texting her bouncer boyfriend. “ETA Cantina before last call. Don’t even think about going to breakfast with that bitch bartender with the bad boob job”. She, of course, steersed with her knees. Mimi could multitask with the best of them. And, with one DUI notch on her steering wheel, Mimi couldn’t speed. So, she drove straddling the yellow lines of a freeway that has turned from four lanes to two at the Novato Narrows, with an angry Dieter closing the yards between them.
Having grown up driving the Autobahn, Dieter flashed the Acura a warning with his high beams. The Acura braked, forcing Dieter to brake and fishtailed as the yards between the two cars vanished. Even with his lederhosen rolled into a wad that couldn’t be comfortable, the ex-pat German had enough courtesy to ask the Acura to get out of his way. Irritation now revved his headache to the exact frequency of his engine’s whine. Again, he scoured the Acura with his brights and left them on. The Acura swerved to straddle both lanes again as if taunting him. The white lane dividers look as if a hidden Acura tail-gunner was firing tracers back at the furious Dieter.
“I have been patient,” he yelled, spraying the inside of his windshield with spit. “Now it is time for you to get out of my focking way.”
Two hundred yards ahead, unaware that Dieter and Mimi were bearing down on him, William Winters tooled along. He was still creeping along pretty much like Mimi but without the incentive of a DUI.
Will rummaged in a traveling case and extracted a CD. After copying the music he hadn’t labeled the disks on purpose so he won’t have a clue who he’d be listening too. He slipped it in and turned up the volume. Soon The Drive-by Truckers were blasting from the speakers. Patterson Hood, the band’s front man, was asking the musical question would his mother weep for him if he threw himself off Lookout Mountain? Will’s contented grin erupted into laughter.
Headlights blinked in Will’s rearview mirror like raised eyebrows. He sighed. Why let a jerk with a Jeff Gordon complex ruin his trip? He surrendered the fast lane without a blink. When a red Acura shot by a Beemer was drafting it so close that they looked like something out of a NASCAR highlight. In Will’s peripheral vision the two cars appeared to be a single, two-tone limo. Then they were gone.
Mimi finally approved of her makeup. She repositioned the rearview and was shocked to see a car behind her. So close behind her that its high beams were just a hideous halo over her trunck. Mimi quickly adjusted the Acura into the slow lane. Instead of taking the fast lane, though, the maniac behind her moved over as well. Shock shares the same adrenaline surge as anger; Mimi made the shift easily. White knuckles gripping her steering wheel, her foot also shifted from accelerator to brake.
“Let’s see how quick your fucking foot is, buddy,” she screamed into her glowing rearview mirror.
Safe behind the drama, Will let the speeding idiots run and let the twangy southern rock sooth him. That tactic lasted sixty seconds. Suddenly, up ahead a cloud of fabled coastline fog raced toward him like a soft pillow. Fog can be friend or fiend, depending on your mood. That night Will saw it as a buddy. He stuck his head out the window so the wet air could cool his grainy eyes. Instead of wet fog, though, he got pelted by grit. The faux-fog bank was really a cloud of road shoulder dandruff that covered both northbound lanes of the freeway. Car lights dueled inside the dust cloud. Will groaned. It was the Beemer and Acura that had flashed by earlier.
Will watched as the Beemer driver stood on the brakes, almost coming to a dead stop (pun intended). The drafting Acura had to brake and almost lost control, which is what the Beemer had in mind. Will’s right tires clipped the shoulder as he swerved to miss the insanity. His own dust merged with the angry road rage cloud. The Acura sped up and zipped by Will. High beams flashing behind him warned that the enraged Beemer was back in the chase. The Acura slowed so that it and Will’s boring sedan formed a roadblock. Will glanced over and saw that a woman was driving the other car. As Will waved for her to move ahead, the Beemer rumbled by on the right,. Doing Will one better, the Beemer’s driver had all four of his wheels in the dirt. Gravel and asphalt pinged Will’s grill. The Acura bunched it. So did the Beemer. Soon the two combatants were neck and neck. The Beemer driver, a male, motioned for the Acura to pull over. She wouldn’t.
Somewhere south of Petaluma, the Acura rope-a-doped the Beemer into passing and then cranked a hard right onto a pitted country road. Too late for a normal freeway exit, the Beemer braked into a 180 degree slide and roared back to the turnoff against the freeway’s grain. Like space debris being drug behind a comet, Will was sucked into the turnoff as well. Mesmerized by the scope of the road rage, he had saluted the Acura’s nifty escape, only to curse after the Beemer’s pirouette.
Will felt that he had to see how it concluded. He didn’t. Well, he did, he just wouldn’t remember it. What bubbled up out of the La Brea tar pit of his mind that night? Maybe some repressed chivalric code? It surely wasn’t the middle finger that the woman held out her window. It definitely wasn’t her words yelled across at her nemesis like an obscene mime. What, then? Why did he follow them?
The Acura found that the escape road led to the locked gates of the county landfill. While attempting a U-turn the Beemer cut it off. The Beemer driver jumped out and pounded fist-sized dents in the Acura’s hood. The Acura driver was busy slamming the door lock button and threatening with her cell phone. Mascara ran down her cheeks. As her eyes metronomed from her attacker to the Cavalryesque approach of Will’s headlights, her pale face was something out of a “Twilight” movie or an Anne Rice novel.
Will’s mind circled above the scene in the orange sherbet glow of the dump’s halogen night lights. He saw his own company car making a vehicular T on the buckled asphalt below. He realized that he had suddenly been presented with one of those life-defining moments. We’re often provided with such decisions. Some are no-brainers. Others, tough calls. Impossible reactions numbed and drugged by adrenaline. Still we always had a choice. There was a holy symmetry to life; Good/Bad, Black/White, Yin/Yang, Dieter/Mimi. It was like watching one of the chases on a police reality show. Only then Will was on the scene and there was, of course, not a CHP in sight. Never is, is there?
Later, much later and most noticeably from his cell on San Quentin’s Death Row, Will would replay that scene many, many times. At least what he could remember of it. Could that brunette’s eyes have been that blank? Could the guy pounding on her hood have been that angry? With all pardons to Mr. Ralph Ellison, Mimi had been like the invisible, rude white man being held down by the black man he had bumped into. The black man demanded an apology the white man couldn’t tender because he didn’t even see the phantom above him trying to open a straight razor with his teeth as a man. Will’s version in the rolling, sleepy, and predominantly white (not counting the illegal workers of the farms, vineyards and hen and pot hinterlands of Northern California) paled in comparison to that classic but we can’t control where our brains go during moments of stress. At such times, Will’s brain always seemed to bounce back to The Invisible Man. He had to choose; move forward to help, or he let Act Three of that stupid little drama play out in his rearview?