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Fleetwood Walker's Birthday Bash
By Larry Blakely
This early March evening, there is rice on the dinner menu and snow in the forecastneither augurs well for Webster Higgins's elaborate party plans; either could spoil a sporting event sixty years in the making.
Most folks who've burned shoe leather for eight decades learn a little something about getting by, getting along. Not so for Charles "Fleetwood" Walker. If the Happy Canyon Manor ever held a Mr. Congeniality contest, it's a safe bet crotchety Fleet Walker would garner no votes.
The nickname dates back to Fleet's great-grandfather, Moses Fleetwood Walker, first black man to play in the major leagues, more than half a century before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. After being forced out of the big leagues in the 1890s, the namesake Fleetwood became a newspaper editor who was widely known for speaking his mind freely and vociferously, a trait well preserved in the great-grandson who now calls the Happy Canyon retirement village in Shaniko home.
Before the United States Army came calling, Fleet also played professional baseball, a single season in 1942 in the Negro National League. He covered third base for the Newark Eagles, a teammate of All-Stars Willie Wells (shortstop) and Leon Day (pitcher). Though he seldom talks about his baseball days aside from those rare occasions when he's higher than a fiddler's fist, Fleet played against some of the era's all-time greats, legends like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and the flamboyant Satchel Paige.
The Happy Canyon recruits volunteers, mostly teenagers, to help serve food and clean up in the dining room where, as in high school, groups tend to congregate at the same tables day after day with little crossover. There is one major difference, however, from high school seating arrangements: here, class and race tend not to factor heavily into the mix.
Webb and Fleet share a table with Emma O'Neal, a frisky little seventy-eight-year-old firecracker who attends aerobics classes mainly so she can slap the muscular instructor on the rear as she's leaving; Russell Sockalexis, a broad-shouldered proud member of the Yakama tribe who wears his hairmore salt than pepperdown to his shoulders and takes a certain delight in rooting for the Washington Redskins; Eben James, a retired logger whose weathered face still carries traces of sadness three months after losing his best friend. The round table's sixth chair remains empty save for an L.A. Dodgers ball cap, placed there in memory of its feisty former occupant, Frank Brewster.
Tonight a new girl about sixteen, raven-haired and heavyset, is working their section. Pinned to the chest of her V-neck sweater is a white plastic name tag: Debbie. When she arrives carrying a tray loaded with plates of baked chicken, green beans, and white rice, everyone but her knows the raisin stunt is coming.
After removing a small red box from the pocket of his zippered sweatshirt, Fleet sprinkles a few raisins atop the mound of rice on his plate. Then he tugs on Debbie's sweater sleeve as she passes by, points to his plate, and says all solemn-faced, "Know what that is?"
She flashes a quick, nervous smile, glances first at the rice and raisins, then at Fleet. "No sir," she says, taking the bait.
Fleet raises his eyebrows and says, "Niggers in a snowstorm."
Debbie's jaw drops and she nearly drops the empty tray. She blinks, lost for a response. When she scurries away without a word, a woman at the adjacent table turns and says, "That gag of yours is starting to wear thin, Mr. Walker."
"What?" Fleet says, looking all around, feigning innocence. "What?"
The woman rolls her eyes. "As if you don't know."
Fleet shrugs. "Just calling a spade a spade."
In the past, Fleet's ethnic humor has created a minor flap or two, once even causing some residents to exit a Wednesday night bingo game in a huff, one irate resident telling Fleet that jokers like him gave village idiots a bad name. This evening, Webb is thankful everyone lets it pass without further comment. If Fleet had stirred things up any more, Webb's bus passenger list might well shrink.
When they've finished dinner, before a different server appears with the low-cal, low-carb, low-taste dessert selections, Webb pulls Fleet aside and ushers him down a long hallway to the darkened rec room where no activities are planned this Sunday evening. Flicking a light switch, Webb gestures to a Ping-Pong table covered with a paper tablecloth featuring Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner.
Squinting in the fluorescent glare, Fleet examines the table's centerpiece, a chocolate sheet cake, eight yellow and blue candles, four white frosting baseballs with red stitching at the corners.
Fleet isn't carrying his reading glasses, so he brings a hawkish nose close to the cake and peers at the scrolled icing inscription: You Gotta Have Balls To Live This Long.
A slender six-footer, Fleet stands upright. Scoliosis has not stooped his spine like it has so many others. He strokes a thin, white Abe Lincoln beard tracing his jawline. "Very festive," he deadpans.
"Couldn't afford no eighty candles," Webb says.
"Thought I told you no parties."
"Who said this is a party?"
Fleet frowns, then dips a fingertip into a corner of the cake and licks the dollop.
"Hey," Webb says, "keep your paws out of that. It's for later."
"Here, you got a present." Webb reaches under the table for a small package wrapped in gold foil paper, no ribbon.
"Also told you no presents, goombah."
"Little late in the game to start paying you any attention." In fact, it has been five years since they agreed not to exchange gifts or publicly acknowledge each other's birthdays, a pact that until now hasn't been breached.
Fleet opens the thin flat box and removes a single leather and mesh batting glove, gray on blue. He holds it up. "I don't get it."
"That's the trouble, see; you never get it. Try it on."
Fleet first looks at Webb like he's sure his friend has jumped his trolley, then pulls the glove onto a hand the color of caramel and flexes his slim fingers.
It is Webb's turn to deadpan. "You like it?"
"What the hell's the point?"
Webb nods toward the bay windows and points a thumb up. Outside, headlights blink twice in the vacant visitors' parking lot.
"That a bus?" Fleet says.
"Looks like it." Actually it is not the full-sized Blue Angel bus belonging to the Manor, but a smaller rented model that holds a maximum of twenty-four passengers. Webb had a devil of a time filling the seats, what with the weather and Fleet's propensity for alienating people. "Take your coat, bub; it's kinda chilly outside." From under a different table, Webb removes his own orange parka and Fleet's relic of a leather flight jacket, the woolen cuffs frayed, the black goatskin grayed with age.
After Fleet grabs his jacket, he stuffs the glove inside a pocket. "This better be good."
As the last rays of daylight fall on the west walls of the Happy Canyon Manor, Webb and Fleet board the bus where the bundled-up passengers give the guest of honor a polite smattering of applause, but do not get up. Once they're down, the residents tend to stay put and besides, Fleet Walker is not exactly one to inspire raucous outbursts of support from his fellow residents.
They take their reserved seats in the right front row, across the aisle from Emma and Eben, now something of an item according to recent rumor. Webb nods to the driver, a sourpuss who appears to be there against his will and better judgment, and says, "Motor on."
They are not a mile down the highway before the second threat to Webb's game plan appears: scattered flakes of snow begin to flutter in the headlight beams.
Eben hands a blue ball cap across the aisle to Fleet and says, "Take this; keep that bald dome of yours warm."
As the bus navigates the all-but-empty streets of Shaniko, Fleet says to Webb, "Don't expect you'd care to tell me what the scoop is here."
"Wouldn't be much of a surprise if I told you now, would it?"
Webb motions to Mary Ellen Walters who, to his surprise, had asked to be included even though Happy Canyon employees were not invited. She sits behind them cradling a narrow box about a yard long tied with navy blue and yellow ribbons. Only two people aboard the bus know this, but blue and yellow were the Newark Eagles' colors in the 1940s. He adds, "You got one more gift."
She hands the box forward and says, "We all chipped in."
Fleet removes the ribbons, opens the box, shakes his head. "What's this?" He hoists a black wooden bat from the box and reflexively wraps his hands, hands that haven't held a bat in decades, around the fat grip covered with white adhesive tape.
"That's a genuine Shoeless Joe Jackson model," Webb says. "Black Betsy he called it. Well, this ain't an original, of course, but not too many of these replicas were turned out. It's what you call a collector's item."
"That a fact?" Fleet says. "You can"
"It's right up there," Webb says to the driver, pointing toward their destination, the Shaniko Shamrocks baseball field located in a remote area on the north edge of town near the high school.
Once the bus is parked and the passengers are unloading, two young menone lean and lanky like Fleet, the other a fireplug more on the order of Webb, both wearing green letterman jackets with leather sleeves and a white "S" on the left chestclimb out of the only car in the lot, a foreign compact whose main colors are primer and rust. They wave at Webb, who walks with Russell toward them, a perplexed Fleet trailing behind.
Meanwhile, like a herd of aged cattle, the other bus passengers move as one toward the field's third base line, stomping feet and clapping mittens along the way, puffs of breath visible in the frigid night air. A gentle breeze swirls a fine mist of snow around the infield. Before the spectators take seats bunched together in the lower three rows of the aluminum bleachers, they sweep aside a thin dusting of powder.
"Remember the key?" Webb asks the boys. They both carry baseball gloves tucked under their arms, and the tall one holds a canvas bag containing a dozen or so used baseballs.
"Yes sir, Mr. Higgins," the stocky one replies, fishing inside his jacket. He hands over the key, then points toward the low ceiling of dark clouds and sky spitting snow. "Still think this is gonna work?"
"Only one way to find out." Webb unlocks the back door of the gray building housing an announcer's booth above the concession stand. When he flips on the ballpark's bright lights, five banks atop tall wooden poles, it brings a meager cheer, a ripple of applause from the crowd.
"I'm not liking the looks of this," Fleet says. He turns his collar up and blows on his hands. "What you got cooking?"
"Hold on to your britches," Webb says. "Get on out there with the boys; I've got to show Russell something." Before Fleet can reply, Webb disappears inside. When he returns to the field, he finds Fleet, arms folded, leaning against the high wire screen some twenty feet behind home plate, the knob of the black bat resting against his crotch.
The skinny southpaw is on the mound warming up, pitching in a relaxed, easy motion to the stout kid squatting behind home plate, which has all but disappeared as snow continues to fall. The crowd is quiet, aside from Emma who lets it be known she's anxious to get the show on the road. She has a point. With each passing minute, the snow comes down heavier. Time is clearly not on Webb's side.
"Well?" Webb says.
"Well what?" Fleet says.
"Step up and take your cuts, boy. Don't have all night."
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2004 issue.
LARRY BLAKELY lives with his wife, Stevie, in Portland, Oregon. This is
his twelfth published baseball story and second to appear in EFQ. In his next
life he hopes to come back as a groundskeeper at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.
© 2004 Larry Blakely
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