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No Happy Ending
By Staff Writer
Somebody should have warned me about the Wienery. I usually like restaurants named after cuts of meat. The Porterhouse in Denver. Sir Loin's Omaha Sirloin. The Head Cheese, not as you might guess in Madison, but in NYC's Greenwich Village meat districtbut that's a whole other story.
This story begins in the Wienery, which used to be Edna's on the West Bank in Minneapolis. Edna was a portly grandmother who ran a tight ship. Six seats at the counter, six seats at three tables. Checkered tablecloths, big ceramic salt and pepper shakers, a cat-eye clock. The sort of place that's been around forever, and you think will be around forever and then one day it isn't. Time passed. Edna passed. The Wienery took over, featuring, needless to say, wieners. Now, I've had a lot of wieners in my time. Ballpark franks, kosher dogs, Louisiana hot boudin (a Cajun sausage which I dare mention in the same breath as a wiener only because it shows the heights to which a skin stuffed with meat by-products can ascend).
The Wienery never rose to those heights. But it offered a decent dog and breakfast in the morning, so I'd go in and look at the old stainless steel racks behind the counter. They used to be filled with Edna's knickknacksporcelain dolls of big-eyed kids and pictures of grandchildren and old Christmas tree ornaments. Now they were home to Pat's hat (the new cookbearded, friendly, slovenly), and you could see some coffee cups that never made it to the sink and a pack of cigarettes. Fair enough. Time passed. Things changed.
Last week, I went into the Wienery for a dog. It's dark now, clouded with cigarette smoke from two weather-beaten guys at the end of the counter. The counter itself is littered with ashtrays and burn marks. The stainless steel rack on the wall is covered with old newspapers and broken toasters and a dirty dishit's like entering the apartment of an ancient obsessive-compulsive who can't throw anything away and can't clean anything up: The stuff all just stacks higher and higher until he dies and then four men wearing smog masks have to cart out all his crap on big dollies.
I ordered a hot dog from a guy behind the counter with a nose ring larger than most keychains. I glanced down at the bums smoking Camels. One of them looked up at me. His grey eyes were clouded, his grey beard hung to his waist, his grey stocking cap was filthy and stained with blood, and then I recognized him: It was Elmore, the Baseball Tragedian.
Remember how your mom used to say, "That's not funny"? You burped and laughed. "That's not funny." You farted. "That's not funny." Most everything that's funny to a five-year-old is not funny to his mother. Elmore had the opposite problem. He cried at an Andy Griffith episode. "That's not sad." He brought in a robin with a broken wing. "That's not sad." He brought in a bunny rabbit that a bobcat had mauled until little Peter Cottontail's throat was slit and its fuzzy fur was shredded like a pine tree in a wood chipper. "That's not sad."
Life in Illinois was tough. It was brutal. It was so sad that nothing Elmore did could move his mother to empathy. It became Elmore's life mission to make people cry. But he was not an actor. His voice was thin and raspy, and when he appeared on stage in the Joliet High School production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he was so awkward that people assumed he was the tree. Did I mention that Elmore's life was tough because his father was an incarcerated felon? It's part of the picture.
Elmore was a ballplayer. He was a talented ballplayer. His hero was Wee Willie Keeler, someone from the distant past, but he was small like Wee Willie and he loved the idea of "hit 'em where they ain't." That part he could play. He could handle a baseball bat like a magic wand, stroking the ball just beyond the second baseman's grasp or placing a Texas Leaguer right in that Bermuda Triangle where the shortstop and left fielder and center fielder collide instead of catch the ball. In fact, that was how his career really started. One day while playing for the Little Big Horn Custards (bad promo for a dessert idea that never caught on), he placed a Texas Leaguer right into that no-man's-land. Sure enough, the shortstop ran smack into the oncoming left fielder and collapsed in a heap. Elmore heard the gasp from the crowd as he pulled into first base. Time was called, the shortstop had to be carried off the field on a stretcher, and as Elmore looked up into the stands, he saw a woman wipe a tear from her eye.
He had finally found something that was sad. He had found his calling. "Elmore, the Baseball Tragedian" was the flip side of Max Patkin's coin. Elmore would tour Class A ballparks throughout Illinois. He'd have the hometown team take the field. Then he brought out a microphone and set the stage: "Ladies and gentlemen. Imagine that we are in the World Series. It is the seventh and deciding game between the New York Yankees and the long-suffering Chicago Cubs. After decades of frustration, the Cubbies have made it to the pinnacle of baseball. But now they are down to the their last at bat, their last out. They have loaded the bases." (At this point he motions three runners onto the bases. They trot out, wearing Cubs uniforms.) "The Cubs are trailing by three runs. It is a cool day in October. The wind is blowing in off the lake. Two outs. Bases loaded. And up to the plate steps Ron Santo."
He set down the microphone and stepped up to home plate. The pitcher wound up and fed him a fastball. He fouled it off. He fouled off the next two pitches. He took a ball. He took another. He fouled off a pitch. He took ball three. He stepped out of the box. Looked up at the sky. In prayer, perhaps. A collective hush fell over the ballpark. A thousand fans who knew they were watching a performance suspended their disbelief. They sat on the edge of their bleachers. Elmore stepped back in. He fouled off another pitch. And another. He stepped out again. The tension was palpable. Then he nodded toward left field. A prophecy? A called shot? Hubris? Or the confidence that the Chicago Cubs would finally win a World Series?
He stepped back in. The pitch came. He connected. He hit it with a timing that could not be matched. A timing that sent the ball up, up, up into the sky over left field. A timing that had an entire ballpark of fans on their feet, screaming, urging the ball on. Now the ball was curving slightly, curving toward the foul pole. Elmore danced up the first base line, Fisking the ball with his body, urging it fair. But no. At the last possible instant, the ball hooked foul, missing a home run by a foot. The crowd gasped, sighed, settled back down as Elmore returned to home plate.
Now he dug in. He appeared determined, a man possessed. The pitcher wound, delivered, Elmore again swung, what appeared to be a perfect swing, his weight shifting from back to front, his shoulder in, his head down, and the ball took off in a great soaring trajectory. Now Elmore confidently started into his home run trot, this time giving the Kirk Gibson celebratory fist pump as he headed toward first. But the ball is still up in the air. The ball is caught in some headwind. The ball is stalled, hanging forever now up above center field. And the center fielder is watching it, timing it, his hand on the wall for balance as he leaps and extends his glove andWHOMP!the ball lands in the leather. The Cubs have lost.
Grown men weep. They give vent to years of frustration and disappointment in great sobs. Little boys lie down on the bleachers, wailing and kicking their tiny feet. It was a performance designed to touch the heartstrings of Cub fans and tap into their particular nightmare. He had one other show, which he toured Massachusetts, a tearjerker involving the Red Sox in which Buckner makes the play, the game goes into extra innings, and then they lose, but that was never as successfulit was just too much. It was Sophocles, and the American public could really only handle Tennessee Williams.
"Elmore?" I hadn't seen him in years.
"Staff?" He chuckled and held out a nicotine-stained hand.
"How are you?"
The moment I said it, I thought, there's a stupid question. The man looked like hell, looked like a walking corpse. His fingers were the size of number two pencils, his teeth were yellowed and chipped, and drool hung around his matted beard like dirty snow around a fire hydrant.
"Glad to hear it, Elmore. Life treating you okay?"
I never got his answer. Because at that moment he turned a shade of green and then white. He gurgled something that sounded like, "It's not sad . . ." Then he pitched forward onto the counter, spittle oozing from his mouth. Blood trickled from his ear. I spilled my coffee and it ran down the counter, mixing with the spittle and blood as Mr. Nose Ring called 9-1-1.
I left the Wienery a little shook up. Not because Elmore had died. I was shook up because the world's a damn cold place. When they hauled Elmore out of there on a gurney, no one shed a tear. The hot dogs went right on rotating. The coffee was poured, the counter wiped with an oily rag, and I realized that no one would remember Elmore. Unless I wrote this down.
Writing down what I remember before I forget it, this is Staff Writer.
STAFF WRITER has probably forgotten more about baseball than most folks will learn in a lifetime. He's been around the game so long that he remembers when a ballpark dog was still called a frankfurter.© 2002 Elysian Fields Quarterly
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