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FICTION

The Pheasant, the Devil, and the Relief Pitcher
By Ray Slater

 

Like I've said before, I can't exactly recall when all the possession business got started. I do remember Buzz the equipment man reading to us about Rue Morgue Chenier on the bus trip back from Harrisburg. But I'm getting ahead of myself. In my own mind, everything started after we dropped a twin bill in Durham. If the team wasn't last in the Dixie League, we were sure making a run at it. On the trip back, Hookie Chenier sat alone at the front of the bus. Being the losing pitcher of record in both games was by no means entirely his fault. Rupert Maddox, losing a flyball in the lights, had seen to that. Still Hookie had not helped matters.

"Just call me Kerosene Chenier," Hookie commented to me as he handed the ball over to Red and walked off the mound after giving up four runs in the seventh inning of the nightcap.

"Just what I need, Francis," said Red, as we watched the Ragin' Cajun head down the runway into the clubhouse. "Another friggin' comedian."

At least losing both games had provided our closer, Armstrong, a well-earned night off. After all, of what use is the stopper after the sauce has run from the bottle? And rest was what Armstrong needed. If our team rode solidly among the pretenders instead of alone in the cellar, the tireless heat Armstrong brought to bear, if not the sole reason, is the only one worth mentioning. Back at home the next night we took a one-run lead in the eighth and Armstrong closed it out throwing peas.

We were about to make the swing down through Hookie's home country to play Ruston and Shreveport and the kid's spirits picked up. Then Red called Hookie in and told him he was going to be released after the Shreveport game. The Skipper had enough class to keep Hookie around before the hometown crowds, but only enough. But then, Red's gotta swim in the same shit we all do, and Hookie's 14.08 ERA probably wasn't making heads spin in the front office either.

When we hit bayou country Hookie invited the bullpen guys, catchers, and Buzz the equipment man to go pheasant hunting. Hookie borrowed enough guns and gear, and the next morning we were out early on the bayou. Like I told the coroner, it never occurred to any of us to tell Buzz to break the shotgun breech when he climbed through the fence. The rest of us were country boys and had been warned repeatedly of the danger by our fathers. Not that it lessened the shock when Buzz's gun went off and both barrels caught Armstrong square in the back.

The team canceled the Louisiana games to let us go to the funeral. After all, this wasn't "The Show." With the empty roster spot Hookie wasn't cut, but Red noticed the kid was low, taking so much of it upon himself. Which was reasonable I suppose, though this didn't help Buzz, or for that matter, Armstrong.

And that's how it came to pass that Hookie got the ball with a one-run lead, two on, and one out in the bottom of the eighth against Winston-Salem, the league leaders.

"Get his mind off it," Red said as Hookie trotted in from the pen.

"I suppose so, Red," I said, rolling the chaw of Red Man from one cheek to the other.

"What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger," Red intoned, then added, "Ronald Reagan said that."

I looked at him. "He should know, I guess." I spit a jet of tobacco near his cleats. Red handed the ball to Hookie and headed back to the dugout.

Hookie stared at me. "What does this mean, Francis?"

"It means that the manager is making you our new closer."

"Closer? I don't have the heat to be a closer."

"It's not the heat, Hookie; it's the humidity."

"Humidity?" Hookie seemed to have never heard this before and mulled it over for a moment. "Francis, I'm not Armstrong."

"No, but you're the Ragin' Cajun, ain't you? These guys don't know what you'll do. You got a decent enough fastball and you can change speeds, can't you?"

"So?"

"So go behind the mound and roll your eyes, glare a lot, talk to the ball, and then come back and throw the first pitch, right here, behind the batter's head."

"I already killed one guy this week, Francis."

"You can knock that shit off right now, okay? You're talking to me now, not some coed down at Valentino's."

"You really think I can handle this?"

"What have you got to lose? What can they do if you screw up? They already fired you. Relax. Life's too short not to have a good time."

I handed him the ball and he took it out behind the mound. He stood there for a while. So long, in fact, that the umpire was heading out but looked at me first.

"Give him a minute, Shuggie," I pleaded.

Shuggie dropped his face protector. Hookie came back in and threw the first pitch right down the middle. The batter had been taking all the way. On the next one he leaned in and it sailed right up under the batter's chin. He came up off the ground mad and glared at Hookie.

"Go ahead, Kaiser," I warned, "really piss him off. You'll be the second guy he killed this week."

"I heard that other shit was an accident."

"What do you think they'll call this?"

"Don't bullshit me, Ryan."

Shuggie stepped between us and bent over to brush off the plate. "Ryan, you tell this kid I'll run him if I think he's violating my prerogative."

The batter dug in the box. The ball came straight in. This time so slow that when Kaiser swung, his heels nearly left his cleats. The kid threw two fastballs that just missed the outside corner and then followed with a rainbow curve which froze Kaiser solid. On three and two yet.

"Stri-kee thr-ee!" Shuggie windmilled.

The next batter grounded weakly to second. In the ninth, it was three up and three down. The last a K on a fastball after two straight changeups. Of such stuff legends are born. We won seven of the next nine, and Hookie saved six of them. He never overpowered anyone, but suddenly he seemed to know what to throw and when to throw it. I'd like to take credit, and there may be some due because I did start the ball rolling so to speak, but Red was platooning catchers to keep us fresh for the stretch run. And even when I was in, Hookie spent most of the time waving me off. With so much success that, after a while, you couldn't of told me from the umpire if I wasn't the one wearing the mitt.

It didn't take the local papers long to pick up on the twist-of-fate angle, not with ballplayers being nearly as superstitious as they are talkative. The media vultures descended, and Red, having seen his team spend the early season off the front page of the sporting section, encouraged the feeding frenzy. If the commotion bothered Hookie, it didn't affect him when he strolled to the mound in the eighth or ninth and went into his Ragin' Cajun routine.

 

My first indication that things were metaphysically off center came after the Fourth of July series in Shreveport. I was seated next to Hookie on the bus coming home. I no longer sleep as well on buses as I did in my youth, even after a six-pack of Dixie beer. I had just put a chaw of Red Man twixt my cheek and gum and was searching for my paper cup, remembering Red's admonition about spitting on the bus floor, when I heard Hookie's low voice.

"Francis, do you believe in the supernatural?"

I imagined we were the only ones awake on the bus, not counting, hopefully, the bus driver. I pushed the chaw into my left cheek before answering. "You mean like ghosts and UFOs?"

"That someone can tell the future?"

"Like Nostradamus?" I asked.

"Who?"

"Toeless Joe Nostradamus. Way before your time. He predicted the 1906 earthquake would keep his team, the San Francisco Black Stockings, from winning the World Series."

"I never heard that." Hookie sounded skeptical.

"You could look it up," I said.

"This is a woman, Francis. Her name is Madame Tanbark. I saw her when we were in New Orleans."

"What does she predict?"

"She's not like that."

"What is she like?"

"Nuts and bolts type of stuff. Like, ėYou will beat Asheville if you throw sinkers and make them hit groundballs.' Stuff like that. Oh, and one other thing . . ."

"What's that?" I asked, shifting the tobacco to the right cheek.

"She gave me this stuff, Francis, an elixir she called it, to make batters miss."

"You mean like a love potion?"

"It works on the wood. I rub it on the ball and when the batter swings, the ball avoids the bat." Hookie paused and then added matter-of-factly, "It's the devil's work."

"Why do you say that, Hookie?" I was intrigued in spite of myself.

"Because I'm His Chosen One. At least that's what Madame Tanbark says. It explains what happened to Armstrong, which is why I went to her in the first place. To get my mind straight. She recognized the symptoms immediately. In the end, we decided that if I'm destined to serve Him, I might as well do it right."

"Listen closely, Hookie. You had nothing to do with Armstrong. It was an accident."

"Is there ever such a thing, Francis? In my heart I envied him. I wanted his split finger and his changeup."

"And the fortune teller gave you this potion?"

"On my second visit," Hookie held out his left hand, palm up. "I pour it into my glove. It's odorless, colorless, and besides, the umpires are already bewitched."

"Back up, Hookie. This potion, lotion, whatever, makes the wood so it won't touch the ball, am I right?"

"Right."

"Two outs tonight, bottom of the ninth. Mapes hits a screamer which Rupert catches off his shoe tops to end the game. Looked like the wood touched the ball pretty good."

"That's the beauty of it, Francis. The potion don't work for anybody but me. It's my own harmonic configuration. If you were throwing the same pitch, it wouldn't work."

"That's why I'm the catcher."

"No. Like I said, it's not the ball. I don't even have to bring the treated ball back to the dugout with me. First baseman flips it to the umpire; umpire hands it to the opposing pitcher. It don't matter. The mojo only works for me, and it only works when my mind is right."

"Mind right?"

"Like the Madame says, only if I throw the right pitch. Old Mapes tonight. I threw the change 'cause I figured he'd be waiting on a fastball. Mapes's head was right. Thank the Lord Rupert's feet were even righter."

"I guess it's not the Lord we should be thanking, hey Hookie?" As I said this I winked, indicating I meant it as a joke, but I had forgotten what I was dealing with. Instead, Hookie's face went to ash. He was suffering from a serious failure to see the humor in the situation. I was reminded of when I played in Charleston and the God Squad crew prayed before and after every game. With God this is somewhat understandable. For some reason I'd assumed Satan would view things in a less serious light, but Hookie's expression told me this ain't necessarily so.

I attempted damage control. "Hookie, if you keep on pitching this way, you're gonna be gone from this jerkwater and pitching in Busch Stadium."

"That's the problem, Francis."

"No, Hookie, playing in the big leagues is not a problem. Being a twenty-eight-year-old career minor league catcher who lives with his mother in the off-season and sells high school yearbook advertising to survive is a problem. I can introduce you to thirty guys within fungo distance, including coaches, who'd like that problem."

"I'm Catholic, Francis. Well, technically my mother's Catholic, but if she found out I made ėThe Show' by selling my soul to the devil, it'd kill her."

"Whoa, Hookie, back up. I missed something. Was there a transaction? Something in writing?"

"It's not done that way," Hookie said.

"Okay, how exactly is it done?"

"It's different for everyone."

"For you, how was it personally for you?"

Hookie reflected on this for a moment. "As an understanding."

"Between the two of you? Are we talking an oral or written agreement? Because if it's not written, especially in blood, I don't think it's legally binding."

Hookie's neck started to get red. "We're dealing with cosmic forces here, Francis; I don't feel it's wise to joke."

"What was understood?" I asked. Hookie remained silent, so I cautious

ly pursed. "The terms, so to speak?"

"They haven't been formally set. Like I said, they're understood."

"I don't follow."

"You know how it works, Francis. You told me you grew up watching old Twilight Zone episodes. Satan wouldn't help me for no reason. I may be a bayou boy, but I'm no fool. I know how it works."

"So He works through Madame Tarbank?"

"Tanbark."

"But if she's in New Orleans, when do you see her?"

"I call her, even when I'm on the road."

"And she has a book on the hitters?" I asked.

"Red has the book. The Madame lends spiritual reinforcement."

This was just getting better. "Red is in on this, too?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Francis. Neither he nor Art Schwartz suspect a thing. They're merely unwitting pawns in His game."

"And His plan is to get you to ėThe Show'?"

"That I may do his work."

"Did Red tell you this?"

"I told you, Red doesn't know a thing. That he picked her name out of a phone book was a complete coincidence. I was there," Hookie said.

"I see. Tell me, Hookie, what do you figure His work will consist of? The corruption of youth, certainly. With what big leaguers charge for autographs today, the kids will be knocking off drugstores in no time. Then there's throwing games in the World Series. Bigger money nowadays."

"I wouldn't joke about this if I were you."

"No? Well, for openers, Hookie, you ain't me. Let me explain. This is baseball, not Armageddon. You're like one of these assholes who catches a pass in the Superbowl and carries on about God's will, like He could give a shit about a ball game."

"He works in mysterious ways." Hookie's calm, self-righteous, smile on a dog response did not help.

"If He's paying attention to your fastball while people are starving in the street, then He shouldn't be working at all." At this point I couldn't remember which He was He, but I suppose it didn't matter.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Francis. I thought we were friends." The hurt was evident in Hookie's eyes.

"Hookie, we are friends, which is why I'm saying this. You don't need a mojo. You're doing this on your own. You got a good arm, not strong like Armstrong, but it's made outta rubber, so you can pitch forever. But what's important is—you've learned how to pitch. Armstrong, God rest his soul, could throw, but that doesn't mean he could pitch. Up in ėThe Show,' a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball doesn't mean a thing if that's all you got. Guys get it timed and it's coming back through the box a lot faster than it came in."

 

Red was soaking his feet in Epsom salts and reading Soap Opera Digest when I stuck my head in his clubhouse office. "Hey, Red, you got a minute?"

"Sure thing, Francis. Listen, if it's about me pinch-hitting Fisk for you in the seventh, I can explain that."

"It's your club, Red, that means you do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. It's about Hookie."

Red sighed and tossed the magazine in a desk drawer. "I heard all about the shrine in his locker already. It was the dead pheasant that smelled. Art found him a stuffed one instead."

"Shrine?"

"You know these bayou boys, Francis."

"Tell me something honestly, Red. If I had a shrine in my locker, what would you do?"

"Tell you to clean it the fuck out. But you haven't saved eighteen games in two months either."

"Where did you find Madame Tanbark?" I asked.

"Who?"

"Come on, Red. You ain't talking to no rook from Biloxi. Picked her out of a phone book, my ass."

Red examined me closely while he answered. "Art Schwartz found her. The Evil Eye used to use her to put the hex on favorites over at Hialeah."

"Red, just what in the hell are you up to?"

"Hookie was doing great, Francis; you saw it. But after a couple of weeks, the air was going out of the balloon. He was starting to doubt himself again. Art thought it would help."

"Help? He's got an altar to Satan in his locker."

"Yeah, but ain't nobody scored on him in twenty-two innings."

"Red, I know this isn't easy for you. I know you only had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and you been beating the bushes down here for fourteen years—"

"A cup of coffee? Francis, I got to warm up in the bullpen. I was throwing so hard I tore something. Manager went to put me in the game and I ran in from the pen. I took six warm-up tosses, hurting so bad I had tears rolling down my cheeks. Then he pulled me, feeling as bad as I did. But I never made it back. This ain't a bad life, Francis. I'm still not working for a living, but I can manage as good as a lot of those guys in ėThe Show.' All I need is a shot. With all the team's been through this year and these newspaper guys writing all these stories, I figure every time my name's in print, it don't hurt. You know what I mean?"

"How about Hookie's secret elixir?"

"Linseed oil. I got the idea from an old baseball movie. By accident some college professor invents a chemical that makes the baseball avoid wood. Naturally, he becomes the star pitcher of the lowly local pro team, the St. Louis Browns springs to mind."

"How does it end?" I asked.

"Happily. In the final game of the season, the magic elixir is used up and he has to go out and face the batters on his own. For the final out he leaps up and barehands the hardest line drive ever hit in the history of the planet. He's never able to throw a ball again, but he gets the girl and the Browns win the pennant."

"This is Hookie's life you're messing with here."

"What's so terrible, Francis? He was on his way back to the bayou before the accident. Who's to say, maybe it was the hand of the supernatural?"

I headed for the door. "I'm gonna tell him, Red."

Red shrugged. He opened the desk drawer and gave a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders. "Hey, Francis, ya gotta do what you gotta do."

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2004 issue.

—EFQ

 

Though a native New Englander (Red Sox Nation), RAY SLATER teaches middle school in San Rafael, California. His baseball these days is limited to games against the San Quentin Giants and watching his two sons (who, thankfully, have inherited their mother's athletic ability) play in nearby Rohnert Park, California.

© 2004 Ray Slater

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