Saturday, March 29, 2008

Searching for Bo Belinsky

For some time now, I've written stories about homeless people, and I honestly don't know why. I've never been homeless and can't claim anything other than second-hand knowledge, but on some level, I think I identify with (my conception of ) their plight.

Anyway, I compiled an anthology of novellas and short stories dedicated to the subject, one of which is the story contained below. Needless to say, any hopes of finding a publisher have long since been abandoned. I hope you like the story.


Searching for Bo Belinsky


If you’ll listen closely when you watch a movie that shows people riding in boxcars, you’ll probably hear any conversation syncopated with rhythmic thumps meant to depict the wheels crossing rail connectors. Truth of the matter is, those sounds really exist in a form approximating the Hollywood sound engineers’ efforts—or, at least such has been my experience, only when you’re actually riding in a boxcar, you feel the jolt a split second before you hear it, allowing your ears to prepare for the sound and interpret it. This can cause confusion if the track sutures aren’t located directly across from one another, because it creates a sub-set of distinct, staccato adjunct sounds mirroring their mates’. Further, depending upon the time of day, season, ambient temperature and geography, the sound varies, even if only slightly, to the discerning listener. With a little practice, one’s precision in sound thumpology becomes attuned to individual tracks, giving a ‘road map’ of approximate locale and destination. Of course, none of this has a damned thing to do with the story I want to tell you, but I thought it might acquaint you with my style and help you understand my unfortunate propensity to embellish, ad nauseam.

The freight car I’d jumped into outside Elko was no more or less comfortable than any other except that the scant light provided by a harvest moon shining through tiny cracks in the wooden superstructure revealed a few empty crates large enough to secret an individual who might desire the security and prospects of an uninterrupted night’s sleep inside with a modicum of privacy. Honestly, I had no concern for the train’s destination or estimated time of arrival; both being mere factors that I’d have to deal with at some point in the future, with ‘future’ being the definitive word. In my world, anything that has either happened or might happen are merely conceptual red herrings only peripherally affecting my current mode of operation. I like living this way because every second becomes important in spite of any promises or threats created by others intended to motivate me or dissuade me from accomplishing my present mission, whatever it may be. Each decision I make is necessarily predicated upon factors obtained in the moment, without regard for extraneous minutia others might deem worthy of consideration.

Like many travelers, I prefer to engage in conversation with my peers at my own behest, exclusive of their mind-numbing requests to ascertain my name, destination, religious and or sexual preferences, marital status, familial home, etc., etc., ad infinitum; all of which receive my immediate verbal scorn and warning to desist. Normally this is enough to discourage most, but there are a few who insist on expanding the envelope, at least far enough to let me know that they’re not going to shut up until I respond.

Such was the case tonight. The sound of the large car door opening interrupted my sleep and I realized the train had slowed. This could mean many things, few desirable unless I wanted to get off. These days, with the implied threat of terrorism pervading all sectors of society, the railroad security crews kept close watch on the trains and any cargo not on the engineer’s manifests was unwelcome—especially the human variety. So, I stayed stock still in my container and watched the unclear visage of my new ‘partner in crime’ close the door and hover behind a broken slat, peering out into the darkness, watching and listening for any indications that he’d been discovered.

In a few minutes, the bifurcated thump of moving wheels slowly increased in speed as the huge diesel locomotives once again overcame the inertia of its load and powered us toward its destination. Once the sonic symphony repeated at a predictable rate and my unexpected new confederate evidently felt more secure, he began the same process I’d begun hours before, shaking the crates and trying to find an empty one to jump into. Necessarily, he pushed the top off my crate and as soon as I felt his fingers on the top, I stood up and shouted at the top of my lungs, “ARRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!”, flailing my arms about in my best imitation of a crazed zombie from The Night of The Living Dead.

As I watched him back up in sheer terror, I heard his scream end as he hit the sidewall of the boxcar and crumple in a heap on the floor, breathless and stunned.

Fearing I may need to defend myself, I jumped out of the crate and moved to the far end of the boxcar, where I crouched in the darkness.

“Jesus Christ, man, lighten up! I’m only lookin’ for a place to crash.” Even through a hacking and coughing attack, the guy’s voice sounded non-threatening… and young. I wondered if he was sick; I couldn’t afford to get too close to him on any account, but if he had TB or some other God-forsaken communicable disease, he could take me out without trying.

“Well, you stay over there. Don’t come any closer or I’ll slice and dice you like a ripe cantaloupe.” Pure bluster at best, my knife would barely cut cardboard and I’d broken the tip off some years back while trying to pry a stuck quarter out of a pay phone, so there was no way in hell I could even stick him.

“That’s fine with me.” he said, raising his beleaguered frame to a sitting position. “Would you happen to have any water?”

“Did you mistake me for the Culligan Man?”

He said nothing but started to laugh— not an outwardly vocal expression, more a stifled, staccato chortle. “That’s funny,” he said, his voice soft but resilient. “I guess it was a pretty stupid request… I’m sorry, I meant no offense.”

Oh, shit, here we go. I hate it when people apologize when they shouldn’t. They just sound needy. Oh, please, mister, don’t think badly of me, I shouldn’t have dared ask you for something so valuable as a drink of water. I took my canteen out of my backpack and tossed it across the floor to him. “Do me a favor and pour it in something or at least try to keep from French kissing it with your yap. For all I know, you might have AIDS or syphilis or the plague.”

Screwing the cap off the plastic canteen, he said nothing as he drank. “Thanks,” was all he said as he put the top back on and tossed it back over to me, “but just so you’ll know, I don’t think you can get AIDS or syph’ off a canteen spout. I think you have to touch a toilet seat or something… but I ain’t so sure about the plague. In any case, I think my hepatitis will kick plague’s ass.”

This seemed to please him; again he began to chortle in a manner similar to the previous. Suddenly, I recalled where I’d first heard just such a laugh. It was 1978 and I’d wandered into a party in Santa Cruz—a cultural phenomenon accepted as the height of decadence by practically any standard applied. The unmistakable ambience and aroma of Maui Wowie filled every crevice; every bean bag chair, sofa, table, and nearly ever square inch of floor space held a motley assemblage of students, musicians and other hedonistic revelers dedicated to smoking yet another fat one and discussing the moral ramifications of the industrial revolution upon sixteenth century stone workers, all to the dulcet tones of REO Speedwagon crooning in the background. That unmistakable titter could erupt from any quarter at any time under any circumstance from anyone… including me. I wasn’t a big smoker of anything, much less marijuana, but it was physically impossible not to gain a contact high merely by remaining in the room, and I wasn’t about to leave. After all, I’d been invited, and it’d be impolite not to stay, especially since practically any booze made by man was available in seemingly indefatigable quantities. Now that I think about it, this party initiated me into the “Munchies” phenomenon and I experienced my first meal of sugar donuts dipped in blue cheese dressing and ice cream sandwiches topped with frozen asparagus tips (to add a little crunch, as I recall), with a stick of butter for dessert, washed down with the water we cooked the hot dogs in. I believe that may have been the night that we got pulled over by the California Highway Patrol during our trip to the liquor store. The officer contended that we might want to consider doing more than five miles per hour on the freeway, but he didn’t arrest us. Personally, I think he was a stoner, too, while off-duty, but since he confiscated nearly $500 worth of beer, whiskey and wine I guess he felt that we’d suffered enough. Of course, this required that we return to the liquor store with that purloined MasterCard, but that’s a story for another time.

Quickly I dismissed the idea that my new acquaintance could be high since it’d be nearly impossible for anyone to run and jump on a moving boxcar while tripping. But, he did have a unique sense of priorities and despite my natural reluctance, I found myself starting to like the kid.

“Where you headed?” he muttered, apparently taking another stab at conversation.

“I’m searching for Bo Belinsky.” I informed him succinctly.

“Oh, yea?”

His answer emboldened me; it sounded like he either might actually know about Bo or he was high and I might need to reconsider my previous appraisal of the situation. “Yea,” I bated, “do you know where I can find him?”

“Maybe… it depends.”

I guess I should have expected it. The road is full of characters; loaded down with people who know people, people whom (but for a bad break here and there) would have become rich and famous. Sure they would… and Bo Belinsky was running from me. Right.

“On what?”
Fuck you, pal, it’s my turn to play inquisitor for a while.

“Well…” he replied slowly, drawing out the word and raising the pitch of his voice at the end, “I don’t know who I’m talking to. For all I know, you might be someone bent on doing him harm, and I couldn’t permit that.”

Of course you couldn’t, you and Bo being tight buddies and all. “Yea… certainly not.” I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say at this point.

“You got any food?”

“Oh, you won’t give me information lest I be some demented hit man unerringly devoted to my quest to do Bo Belinsky bodily harm, but you might be willing to share some information if I’ll consider not killing you long enough to give you some food, does that about sum it up?”

At least, this time he didn’t laugh at me. I could feel his eyes burning very tiny holes in my jacket as they searched me, yet I smelled no odor from burning material or flesh, so I have to assume that his particular quantity of psychic energy couldn’t cause me to spontaneously combust, and this gave me comfort. A minute or so passed and he still hadn’t spoken, so I again opened my backpack and located a can of kipper snacks, which I slid across the wood floor to him.

“Hmmm…” he said, “Canned… something… it’s always been my favorite. Once again I thank you for your hospitality. My fingers tell me that the tin has a pull-off top. When I open it, will coiled-up snakes jump out?”

His mouth wasn’t visible, but I felt his smile; it was full and his teeth were crooked and too big for his mouth, and his thin lips would be stretched to their breaking point across the upper and lower boundaries. It was a smartass smile, and it only came in one form, no matter what his race or sex. I ought to know, too, because years ago, I held a patent on it.

“Eat your fucking sardines, asswipe, and try to show a little gratitude; in some circles folks exact a lofty price for their kindness. I’ll settle for a little information.”

I heard him snort. “Yes, you’re looking for Bo Belinsky, as I recall.”

“That’s right. Know where he is?”

“Yes, I believe I do, at least I know where he was about five years ago. Of course, I can’t assure you that he’d still be there, but I have good reason to believe he will. If you truly want to find him, you might try Las Vegas.”

Las Vegas. Now doesn’t that just figure? “And you know this why?”

“I read it in the paper, I think. Well, read may be an exaggeration in terms, actually; more properly stated, I think I saw it in the Review-Journal while I was ripping out the back page of the Living section to use as toilet paper. It was laying around at a flophouse in Henderson, so I stuck it in my backpack. You know as well as anyone that McDonald’s provides the crème de le crème of napkins for softness and absorbance, but at two o’clock in the morning in the desert, a newspaper sometimes has to suffice.”

The conversation had taken a vicious turn. I wanted information about Bo Belinsky and suddenly we were discussing his toilet habits. “Yea, well, your acumen in the field of substitute toilet products is very interesting, if a bit disturbing considering that, thank you Jesus, I don’t even know your name.”

“Okay, I’ll drop it, I just thought my research, my bracketology if you will, might add to your knowledge of survival skills.”

I had to ask. “Bracketology?” Now the bastard was making up words. Ordinarily, I might have let it slide, but this guy was just a little too glib for my liking.

“Yea… bracketology. Before the security guards threw me out of the bus station in Elko where I tried to catch a few winks on a bench, I watched a discussion about the subject on ESPN. Every year when the NCAA determines the national champion in basketball, for the tournament, the eligible teams are seeded and put into brackets based on a number of criteria such as national ranking, number of overall wins, conference wins, etc., etc. Then, they play in single-elimination format, one team moving on and one team going home, until all but two teams have been eliminated. One of these two teams becomes the national champion. These brackets have become a phenomenon in and of themselves. Sports fans bet on them and hold office pools to reward the most successful ‘bracketologist’, bars have their own contests, and so forth. Since the advent of the inter-net, the process evolved into one of the biggest moneymakers a website can hold. The beauty exists in bracketology’s adaptability to practically any subject. For instance, while sharing a jug of Gallo with a compatriot behind a dumpster outside the rear entrance of a trendy café just off Fisherman’s Wharf last winter, on the loudspeakers that piped music to the diners, I heard a deejay discussing his bracket in the “World’s Worst Love Song” competition. As I recall, I Honestly Love You by Olivia Newton-John, according to listeners calling in, kicked the ass of Barry Manilow’s Mandy, and moved on in the tournament. That’s bracketology.”

I couldn’t speak for a few seconds. Simultaneously, I brought to mind exactly how far removed from society I’d become and how grateful I am of it. I’m reminded that this particular foible of society, the deep-seated need to compete in all aspects of life, provides all the impetus I need to stay in the shadows. Long ago I recognized it and understood that it couldn’t change; society’s very existence depended upon it. People’s lives became marathons of ego-gratification, most run with too little training and too much dopamine. Artists, in all their forms, lay dormant upon the altar of profit, bound and gagged, hoping to be accepted by the Gods and rewarded with the myrrh of emulation and the giddy treasure troves provided by benefactors and angels. Early on, I realized that anything more than a few degrees removed from the bottom line equated to intellectual masturbation and I simply left it behind. Bracketology… individuals’ most recent attempt to prove their standing among their peers, the only chance they might get to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame. In my estimation, society’s competition is an addiction… it’s to want the wrong thing very, very badly—and not be able to stop. I wondered if my new friend felt the same way.

“Isn’t that interesting…” I thought about faking a yawn, but saw no purpose. “Care to tell me what the article said or do you want to dance around some more?”

“Ha!” His audible snort preceded the blast of the train’s whistle, a warning to motorists or other interested parties that an iron bullet the length of four football fields approached and had absolutely no intention of yielding to anyone or anything. I hoped his intentions paled by comparison. He said nothing more until the drone of the whistle left no more reminders of its presence than a ringing buzz in our ears. “Forgive my long-winded preface, I freely admit to such tendencies. But, more to the matter in question, I’m struggling with a dilemma. Since we first engaged in this ‘conversation’, you’ve twice blessed me with worldly kindness in the form of food and water, and it could be argued that your company is a third. In light of this revelation and in consideration of the knowledge I possess, I’m struggling with a decision as to how I should proceed.”

“Out of concern for Mr. Belinsky, I presume? You think I’m trying to find him so I can do him physical harm? How do you know he’s not a relative or a close family friend or perhaps a fraternity brother? Or maybe you think that no one who lives on the road would ever hold anyone dear? Aren’t you a bit young to be a cynic?”

“Why do you automatically assume that it’s Bo Belinsky’s welfare that fuels my dilemma? I dare say the cynic’s cloak might fit you better than me. If you’ll just tell me why you’re looking for him, I’ll tell you what I know.”

“Where did you grow up, pilgrim?” I said, in my best Bear Claw Chris Lapp voice.

The question gave him pause. Such questions tend to stick in the craw of most road warriors. Most of us run from at least one demon, and I wasn’t sure I’d have answered it myself, if asked directly.

“Midwest” he uttered, his voice committed and forbidding. Ask no more.

“Did you root for a particular baseball team when you were a boy?”

“Sure… didn’t everybody?” Then, anticipating my next question, he added, “Cubbies”.

“Acch!” I yipped, the word bringing me pangs of sympathy pains. “No wonder you dropped out. I swear, to anyone who could endure the bungling of a club so inept, so inveterately abominable, I can only pass along my condolences and thank God I had the good fortune to grow up with parents who taught me to think a little.”

“Need I remind you that we’re currently occupying the same boxcar?”

“Do I need remind you that I despise wit, especially when it’s aimed at me? Okay, I’ll give you that one. I grew up in Southern California, in a largely unincorporated area in Orange County, east of Tustin. In those days, every kid was a fan of the Dodgers, so, naturally, I rooted for the Angels. On a warm spring day in May of 1962, my dad took me to Anaheim Stadium to watch them play Baltimore. I was eleven years old, and it was my first major league ball game.”

“And Bo Belinsky hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth to win the game…”

“Do you want me to answer your question or do you just want to hear your gums bump together?”

Only the continuous hum of the locomotive and the waltz of the wheels broke the silence for a while. Then, in a voice so small that had I not been listening closely, I may have mistaken it for a wheeze or sigh, I heard, “Sorry.”

Bolstered by his apology if still suspicious of his motives, I continued, “Pop took me early so that we could watch batting practice. In those days, the Angels attendance wasn’t what it is now, given the fact that they were LA’s ‘farm club’ behind the Dodgers, so for the price of general admission, we waltzed right down to the box seats and sat down in the first row, right next to the Anaheim dugout. Friend, I tell you, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Sure, most of them were rookies or guys none of the other teams wanted, but that didn’t matter, because, to this young kid, they were all Hall of Fame ballplayers.”

“Did Belinsky make it to the Hall of Fame?”

I’m glad he couldn’t see my smirk. “If he did, he paid to get in, just like the rest of us. No, Cooperstown won’t be erecting any bronze statues of Bo. You see, Bo is quite the ladies’ man or at least, that’s his reputation. He became known more for his drinking, pool hustling and carousing than for the mark he made upon baseball. That’s not to say that he wasn’t talented. In fact, at one time he was one of the dominant pitchers in the league. He threw left-handed and possessed a live, riding fastball that naturally broke into the hands of right-handed hitters. In fact, on the day I went to see the Angels play, he made history by pitching the first no-hitter ever pitched in a major league ball game on the west coast. The team mobbed him after he struck out the last hitter, and as he walked off the field, he tossed the ball into the stands, right into the baseball glove of a certain youngster sitting in the front row. ‘Here, kid,’ he said to me while removing an enormous wad of tobacco from his cheek, ‘tell your buddies what you just seen’.”

Again, the whistle blew long and strong and lights shone through the cracks in the sidewalls. We’d reached Las Vegas.

I heard him scrambling to his feet. “This is where I get off. It’s been great talking to you, and I thank you for your hospitality.” As he put his backpack on, I saw his form illuminated against the back lighting. “Listen” he said, as though in afterthought, “I may be seeing Bo while I’m in Vegas, is there anything you’d like me to tell him?”

“No”, I said, “but there’s something I’d like you to give him. Come over here so I don’t have to get up, if you don’t mind.”

He walked over and crouched down next to me, a young man with gracile features. I reached into my backpack, pulled out the ball and placed it in his hand. “Here, if you see Bo, give this to him. I’ve been keeping it for him for forty-five years, and not a day has passed that I didn’t feel like a thief. You see, my young friend, none of us ever really own anything… we can only borrow it for a while. Tell him I’m sorry I didn’t get it back to him sooner.”

Later that day, a young traveler fortified with a plot map approached a grave in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Las Vegas, Nevada. The marble headstone bore the inscription:

Robert (Bo) Belinsky
December 7, 1936—November 23, 2001

In the bronze vase intended for flowers, he placed the browned weathered baseball that struck out the twenty-seventh Baltimore Orioles hitter to face Bo Belinsky on May 2, 1962. If he said anything at all, he was the only one to hear the words.

Bob Church©3/26/07

13 comments:

karen said...

If I had the know-how and the backing, I'd publish you in a heartbeat!

Lee's River/Zlatovyek said...

aw...love this. Really do (and I don't know the first thing about baseball).

Bubba said...

Karen-- Thank you, dear. Just hearing that takes some of the sting out.

Lee-- Baseball was my first lover. From the age of six to The Big Disappointment of my eighteenth year, I was her servant. If I wasn't preparing for the Majors, I was dreaming of it. And in the 60's, there were many, many Bob's who shared my dream. Thanks...

paisley said...

well bub... when i see some of the shit they are backing and publishing these days,,, the reasons why they don't buy things people really want to read,, written by by people, like yourself who really know how to write... become ever so much clearer... i too feel the only losers here,, are the publishers...

this story was even better the second time around...

Scot said...

what a story Bob, the ending was pure poetry--loved it.

Bubba said...

Paisley-- Thanks so much... from your mouth to the publishers ears. Your support is much appreciated.

Scot-- Well, you'd know about poetry, so I thank you.

Dan said...

Very cool story, Bubba. I too loved baseball when growing up. Still have thousands of cards I bought for 10 or fifteen cents a pack, but of course that included a rock-hard stick of gum!

Bubba said...

Dan-- When I left for the Marine Corps, my mother threw away 10 shoe boxes full of cards... including 2 copies of Mantle's rookie card-- but, she didn't know. She just thought it was a rite of passage to get rid of her son's boyhood stuff and usher in his manhood. She didn't know she threw away a college education for all her grandchildren. Oh, well, such is life...

Shirley said...

I'm with Karen...and I just may find the know-how and the backing before we're through! Hang in there. I was once told that the most successful people are the ones who don't know they can't do it...nobody told me! Great Story!!!

Anonymous said...

Cool well crafted, excellent pace and momentum, humourous and compassionate, definitely publishable as is, great story.

Bubba said...

ginga-- Bless you, my friend... coming from you it means even more.

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