serial novel by Kevin Nelson
ON PLAYGROUND POP: HAVING BEEN DUMPED BY BOTH BASEBALL AND HIS WIFE,
SMOOTH IS DESPERATE FOR A BREAK. HE RETURNS HOME TO THE BIG HOUSE,
ONLY TO RECEIVE AN UNEXPECTED (AND UNWELCOME) VISITOR.
When Smooth came home to the Big House, dragging Little Steve and Stevie behind him, he was hardly in a festive mood. Matter of fact he was mad as hell. Not only had Crystal flaked out on him, leaving him in the dark as to where she was or when she would come back, but his agent, Merle T. Earle, had failed to return the half-dozen messages he had left at his office over the weekend.
Crystal had a reason, Smooth figured. But the man who had skimmed off ten percent of every dime he had made playing ball? For this, he deserved more.
The Big House, as Smooth called it, was about an hour's drive east of the city in a planned luxury development known as Eagle Ranch. Lawyers, doctors, business honchos, even a few other professional athletes lived there, lured by its sunny climate, gated entrance, round the clock security, and Nicklaus-signature golf course. In Smooth's view it was almost comical how big the Big House was (though by Eagle Ranch standards it ranked only somewhere in the middle). Three stories, twenty-eight rooms, over five thousand square feet on a three-acre lot. A backyard swimming pool with sauna, hard courts, wide lawns as green as the felt on a billiard table, plush garden areas. Inside the Big House was still a work in progress, however. After three years of living there, some rooms didn't have a stick of furniture in them. Others were only half-done.
Smooth wheeled the mini-van into the white concrete driveway, leaving Stevie, who was riding shotgun, to unbuckle her brother from the car seat in back. Grabbing his duffle, he had other things on his mind. He went ahead to the front door. The Big House was quiet as a midweek day game in the summer. Upon entering the kitchen Smooth punched in yet another call to Merle's office on lower Broadway in New York. This time an actual human being answered, explaining that Merle was tied up in an emergency meeting and would get back to him as soon as it ended.
It was still morning. Even so, Little Steve was hungry. Stevie carried him into the kitchen where Smooth fixed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, dutifully cutting it into small pieces so he didn't jam it all into his mouth at the same time. Stevie popped a Dr. Pepper. With everyone set up and seeming content for a moment, he retreated upstairs.
The master bedroom with its drafty high ceilings was on the third floor. It was one of the few finished rooms, done up in the style of Louis XIV or some other dead French king. A giant four-poster canopy bed dominated the center of the room. The matching bedroom furniture were all antiques, the walls in shades of pink and gray. Off the bedroom were two walk-in closets, each as big as the visitor's dugout at Big Phone Bill Park. Smooth went into his. He surveyed the rows and rows of tailored jackets, custom-made shirts, crisply pressed pants, European shoes. He loved nice clothes, loved the feel of fine, expensive fabrics on his skin. Not today, though. Not in the mood. Tossing off his jacket and slacks he slipped into a pair of worked-in Levi's and a Christina Aguilera T-shirt that Stevie had given him for his last birthday.
He had just gotten off the crapper in the master bath when Merle called. "How come you didn't call me back?" Smooth said in accusatory tone.
"It was Sunday. I don't work Sundays."
"Since I don't know. I'm cutting back. I'm not a well man."
"All that smoking and drinking, what you expect?"
"Hold it, hold it. Lemme check my book. I must have the wrong number. I thought I was dialing Smooth fucking Cassidy, not Mother Teresa." They laughed and Smooth stopped pushing. He liked Merle and not only that, if he was going to land another job in the big leagues, he needed him.
Merle The Earle, as he was known after forty years as a sports agent, was an eyelash over five feet tall. A one-time jockey, he got his start representing other jockeys and soon branched into sports such as baseball. He spoke with a New Jersey accent in a low, gravelly smoker's voice, constantly pulling on Camels like they were breathing life into him, not sucking it out. Sometimes his patter broke off into uncontrollable fits of hacking. Even so he was a force in the business, sitting at his desk with his headset on, lighting cigarettes back to back, a black plastic ashtray overflowing with butts.
"I heard about you being UR'ed. Sorry about that. It sucks. Can you hold on?"
Two days before Smooth had carried his duffle out of Big Phone Bill Park. Then over to the Hotel Nob and back home again. Inside were his glove and other things of a baseball nature. It now sat on the floor next to the bed. While he waited he stuffed the bag, still zippered, behind a row of hanging pants in his closet. If he wasn't using it he sure as hell didn't want to look at it.
Merle came back on the line. "You still there?"
"Yeah I'm here."
"It's a fucking looney bin here today. Ronnie Bennett, you know him?"
"The hockey player?"
"That's the one. He's a client. Got shit-faced drunk last night and head-butted a fire hydrant. Passed out in his own blood and vomit. Those crazy fucking Canucks, they're all hayseeds. Now he's out for who knows how long and the tabs are all over him like flies on shit. You home right? Lemme call you back." And he hung up.
The next day when Merle phoned he apologized for not calling back earlier.
Smooth said, "What it is about you, I don't know. Every time you call I'm in the crapper."
"It's a gift, I guess."
"Now it's my turn to call you back. Me and Little Steve are involved in something."
"Good luck," said Merle.
Being two, Little Steve was alternately fascinated and horrified by all things having to do with the bathroom. Though far from mastering the art himself, he seemed to enjoy, and learn from, watching his father. When Smooth left to answer the phone the boy showed heretofore unsuspected reserves of patience, sitting contentedly on his plastic red and blue toy crapper with the insertable pee cup. Smooth complimented him on this, and resumed his former position.
"Where were we? Oh yeah. You stand and hold it and fire. That's all there is to it. Aim for the bowl, though naturally you're gonna miss from time to time and hit
the rim or the floor. Maybe you have a rim shot and it sprays out onto the floor. These things happen, no biggie. I roomed once with a guy in Double A who got all worked up about stains on the floor and all that. How can you live like that, he says to me. Then he'd get down on his hands and knees and scrub it with Ajax. I've heard about these targets that you can put in the back of the toilet bowl for kids. I can't wait till you get a little older, we'll have shooting contests. Ready, aim, fire. It's a piece of cake, really. Like riding a bike, once you learn you never forget. In a few years you'll be doing it at ballgames, in parking lots, behind trees. I've peed out the window of moving cars and off the rooftops of buildings. Now when you're done you just give it a shake and put it back. Shake it more than once you're playing with it, as the saying goes. But it's okay with me if you play with it. That's just for another time. I'm not teaching you that one. Figure that one out by yourself. There. We're done. You want to push the handle down?"
Little Steve pushed it down, shouted "I did it!" and they watched the swirling waters eddy around the bowl in a moment of father-son bonding. After the demonstration was over Smooth called New York but Merle was already in another meeting and it was two more days of playing phone tag before they hooked up again, this time in the late afternoon.
"So what ever happened to Ronnie Bennett?" Smooth asked.
"Who? Oh, that idiot. Sure his head is messed up. What do you fucking expect when you head-butt a fire hydrant? Lemme tell you, this concussion shit is overrated. Who cares if these guys can't do simple math after they retire? They only think with their little heads anyway. But forget him. Let's talk about you."
"Cool. This is a good time for me. The kids are watching TV and I got a few minutes to myself." Smooth was in the living room but could hear the sounds of the television in the family room. "Arthur" with its Ziggy Marley theme song was on.
"You still on babysitting detail? You should get a nanny or something."
"We had one. But she lost her green card. I'm in charge until Crystal comes back."
"You sound calm about it."
"Gimme five minutes. It'll pass."
Merle chuckled. "Me and Gloria, we never had kids. Gloria wanted them but the plumbing wasn't right or something. What wrecked me was the idea of changing all those diapers."
"Check this out. I got it wired. I'm paying my daughter to do it. Three bucks for wet, five for poop. Ten bucks for the first one in the morning. Man does that one stink. You heard from any other teams yet?"
"You know, about me."
Merle took a long slow drag from a cigarette and blew it out. Smooth could almost smell the smoke three thousand miles away. It curled in the air like refinery smoke.
"It's the end of August, Smooth. Stick a fork in it. Season's almost done."
"Exactly. This is what I don't get, why they dumped me now. With only a month left to go."
Major league baseball allowed teams to expand their rosters in September in order to take a look at their top minor league prospects. With Smooth, however, he was deemed expendable-tuna, in baseball lingo--even as the Redwoods' roster was being expanded.
"They wanted to open up your roster spot," said Merle blandly. "Take a look at someone else at second base. A young kid."
"Yeah. Clubhouse Guy told me. He knows everything that goes on in that clubhouse."
"Johnny Polk?" Smooth repeated in the same stunned tone.
"They say he's a lot like you when you broke in. Good glove, lots of pop in his bat. How old are you Smooth?"
"Twenty-nine. My birthday is next month."
There was a silence as deep as time. "Oh," said Merle.
"Listen Merle," said Smooth, almost pleading, "you gotta help me. All this shit-kids, relationships, marriage. I'm no good at it. After I'm done with the peeing and maybe some farting and belching, I'm pretty much used up as a parental role model. Baseball is what I know. Baseball is what I'm good at. Okay maybe I've lost a step or two, but-
Merle cut him off in mid-sentence. "Hang on. Oh shit. I got to take this call. Call you right back."
Smooth set the phone down, still reeling from the Johnny Polk news. In baseball there were always a hundred guys willing to slit your neck for your job. Every ballplayer knows that, but that doesn't mean you have to like it when it happens. In all his years in the game, the times he was traded or sent down and finally, discarded like an empty Coke can, he never got used to it, never developed that snake-like ability to grow an extra layer of skin to protect himself from the blunt realities of baseball as a business. For him the rejections were always personal. Johnny Polk couldn't carry his jock. And what'd his age have to do with it? It just ticked him off, the whole bloody business, and when the phone rang again he had worked himself up to such a point he was ready to tear Merle a new crack.
"Listen asshole. You're working for me, not the other way around-"
It was a female voice. Not Merle's raspy, tobacco-stained one.
"I guess you were expecting someone else."
"I was talking to Merle."
"I'll call back-"
"No, no. I can talk to him anytime. It's nothing. It can wait. How are you? Where are you?"
"I'm good. How are the kids?"
"They're okay. You want to talk to them? They're watching TV."
"No," she said quickly. "Not now. I figured they were, this is their time for that. Maybe I shouldn't have called. I just wanted-needed to check in. Does Little Steve ask for his mommy?" she asked in a voice as small as a mouse.
"All the damn time," Smooth thought about saying, which was the truth but instead he said, "He's hanging in there. He's a good kid."
"Yes he is. And Stevie?"
"The same. I don't think she quite gets it. Why you left. Neither do I, to be honest. When you coming home?"
"Not right away."
"Why not? Where are you?"
"We're in LA."
"LA? What the fuck you doing in LA?"
"Don't make this any harder than it is, okay? It's hard on me. I miss those two."
Ignoring the fact that his wife of four years did not apparently miss him, Smooth pressed on. "So you're not coming home?"
"If I come home I'll melt when I see those kids. I won't be able to do this and I have to do this."
"It's incredible"-here Crystal's voice dropped its timidity, growing excited, even passionate-"the most incredible thing happened. You remember Saturday night when I went to that club to hear Butch?"
"Butch. The place was packed. All these women, all this incredible energy. I was like floating on this cloud. We both were. So Butch gets up on the stage and starts rapping. Just off the top of her head, she's so creative. 'Va-va-va-voom-bah, you gotta make room-bah.' Butch said it was like an orgasm, the words were exploding out of her. People were dancing and groo-"
"Wait a minute," said Smooth. "Va-va-va-voom-bah?"
"Yes. And there was a record company person in the audience. From Bad Sister Records in West Hollywood. We're cutting a record. Butch doing the Va-va-va-voom-bah rap."
"The va-va-va-voom-bah rap?"
"That's why we're in LA. We took Roxanne and drove straight down. We've been taking meetings all week. They've booked us studio time."
"Sweetie, that's our own private love chant."
"Really?" Crystal was not by nature a cynical person but she could not resist a small satiric jab in this case. "That woman in your hotel closet didn't seem to think so."
Smooth had to concede the point. He was merely glad Crystal didn't check all the closets in the room that night. "Okay, so let Butch do her rap. That's her deal. Why don't you come home?"
"I can't. Butch needs me. You know John and Yoko? She says I'm her Yoko. And I'm getting to learn the tambourine."
The doorbell rang.
There was this story they had been reading to Little Steve. About a lizard-no, a chameleon. First it wanted to be an elephant, then a giraffe, then a bear, then a dog-all sorts of mixed-up things. On the ballfield Smooth knew who he was. But off the field he was as screwed up as that chameleon. He wanted to tell Crystal all that, but instead he said, "Somebody is at the door."
"Okay. I'll let you go. I'll call in a few days, maybe talk to the kids."
"Thanks, Smooth. I was really worried. I thought for sure we'd get into an argument."
Smooth clicked off the phone. The doorbell kept ringing, and he stood up to answer it. He opened the door. It was an older guy, early sixties, full head of brown hair, looking tanned and fit like he just stepped off the Princess Cruise line. He wore a red peppermint-striped shirt, white tennis shorts, deck shoes without socks, and a shit-eating grin.
"Hello son," he said.
Smooth could not find the breath for a reply.
"Well, you going to let me in or not?"
They stood there a long moment, Smooth seriously debating the question, until the next generation rushed in to break the impasse. "Grandpa!" shouted Stevie, excitedly digging into the old man's front pockets for the red peppermint candy she knew were there. The squall of tears having passed almost as soon as it blew in, Little Steve padded in close behind. His grandfather scooped him up in his arms and applied a scratchy wet kiss. "What a big boy you are!" he said to howls of infant glee.
Smooth shut the door. His father had arrived. Let the games begin.
ON THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF PLAYGROUND POP: SMOOTH FINDS OUT WHY HIS FATHER IS PAYING HIM A VISIT, AND THE NEWS AIN'T GOOD. COMING NEXT MONTH ON DADMAG.COM. 10
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