4 • Baseball
Mad Dog was waiting at the curb in front of the office when Will drove up. They had a small office space on Main Street. Will had worked out of his home for years, but eventually tired of policyholders knowing where he lived and dropping by unannounced with paperwork or breaking out his windows at night. He and Mad Dog took advantage of the low price of real estate when business after business closed its doors after the supercenter box store arrived the next town over. There was an attorney a few doors down, and a dentist across the hall. It was sort of a one-stop shopping experience, Will thought. Everybody’s least favorite people under one professional roof.
With a flip of his wrist, Mad Dog tossed his gear in the back and climbed into the passenger seat. “What happened to you today, Phillips? Thought you’d be back by noon.”
“That’s what I thought too, ” Will said with a slight smile. “That old guy you gave me—he’s a real piece of work.”
“Ha! You’ll never learn. Get in, get done, get out. Just the facts, I keep telling you. Just the facts and you’re done in no time.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m a sucker for a lonely old man with an accordion.” He yanked the GPS loose from the windshield and tossed it at Mad Dog. “Tell Barbara to set us up for Fergus, would you?”
Mad Dog opened a manila file jacket and tapped an address onto the screen while Will pulled back onto the highway. “What do we know about this one, Mike?”
He rattled off loss facts in his best Dragnet voice, something that both amused Will and made him embarrassed for his longtime partner. Mad Dog always wanted to bust someone, finding something suspicious under every charred throw pillow, but he wouldn’t likely find his unsolvable mystery in this fire. The way it sounded, somebody just didn’t put out a cigarette. Half the house was incinerated before a neighbor noticed and called 911.
“I brought you a sandwich.” He handed Will a thick ham and Swiss on rye.
“It’s in there, ” Mad Dog was grinning as Will bit into the sandwich and squirted mustard onto his shirt.
“Dammit. Grab me a napkin from the glove box, would you?”
Mad Dog opened the compartment and pulled out a wad of napkins, and the Barbie doll head fell onto the floor. He whistled, then reached to pick up the head. “Who’s the babe?”
“Leave her alone. Put her back with the rest of the napkins.”
“Just wait till I tell the guys at United Casualty about this. They already thought you were just the sweetest thing after that Dixon fire you worked together.”
“Listen. They were total jerks. All I did was ask that punk Kramer to stop spitting on the floor like he was in a Little League dugout. It was somebody’s living room. These companies don’t teach their young guys any respect at all anymore.”
“Easy there, Phillips. The house was a total loss. It was coming down the next week. Nobody cared about the carpet.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s the principle of the thing. Guys should be taught to treat every house like it belongs to their grandmother. I would never spit on the floor. Ever.”
“Oh, and I suppose you’d never put your big dirty boots on a precious little Barbie dress either?” Mad Dog was laughing now, and unscrewed the cap from a water bottle. “Yeah. They told me about that too. What’s with you? You’ve been doing this work for too long to be getting all sentimental about a kids’ toy.”
“Look. I asked Kramer to lift his foot so I could pick up the dress. I put it on a shelf so it didn’t get stepped on again. That’s it. Think if that little girl came in and saw it getting trampled.”
“You’re getting soft, my friend.”
Will had always had to be the redhead — the one with the bangs cut so short they looked like a scrub brush sticking out of the doll’s forehead. His sister and her friends chose all the pretty dolls, then gave him the redhead and said, “This one looks the most like a boy. You take it. You be the bad guy.”
“What do they need a bad guy for anyway?” he’d ask himself as he stuffed the doll into his pocket and rode his bike down the hill to the woods. He would climb his favorite tree, away from everyone and everything and forget all about the dolls until one of the girls would come, sent as the messenger, to complain he wasn’t playing it right. “You’re supposed to capture us! Come on!”
Then he’d climb down from the tree and walk his bike up the hill to find the girls, at which point, they’d scream and run away. He had to chase some of them until he caught them and took their dolls, then he’d go back to the woods and hang the dolls from a low branch so they could be rescued easily when the girls came looking.
He could hear as they ran back up the hill, giggling and squealing, telling each other that Will Phillips didn’t even know how to be a good bad guy.
Will looked at Mad Dog from the corner of his eye. When he lifted the bottle to his lips, Will turned the wheel toward the shoulder just far enough to hit the rumble strips. Water splattered out of the bottle into Mad Dog’s face.
“Shut up, Mike.”
He flipped on the radio hoping to divert Mad Dog’s attention to something besides the Barbie head now suffering the indignity of bouncing in the glove box with napkins, a flashlight and a bag of throat lozenges. Remembering the Tuesday night Cubs game, he clicked to ESPN, patting himself on the back that he sprung for the satellite radio subscription. He was a lifelong Cubs fan but out here it was hard to catch a Chicago game even with cable.
Until the day his father showed up unexpectedly at his kindergarten classroom and took him out early to go to Wrigley Field for his first game, Will didn’t know anything about baseball . His ears and yellow-white hair, in need of a trim, stuck out from under a blue and red cap while he sat straight in his seat, feet dangling and not reaching the ground. He felt small in all the noise and colors of the vast stadium and tried not to let his feet kick the seat ahead of him, where a man with a cigar was talking loudly with his friend about the Cub’s chances. The man turned around and patted Will on his knee. “Whaddya think, kid? We got a winning season going. They gonna break the Curse of the Billy Goat this year?”
Curses and billy goats were news to him, so he just shrugged and looked at his father to answer, but his father was busy reading the program. The man blew smoke into his face and put his hand on his knee again, squeezing it this time. “Well, kid? What’s the matter? They gonna do it?” Will held his breath and wriggled his knee, but the man’s hand was too heavy. He pulled the brim of his cap down just over his eyes, hoping if he couldn’t see the man, then the man couldn’t see him.
It seemed to work. The man turned back to his friend and jabbed him with his elbow. “What kind of kid doesn’t want to talk about his team winning a pennant?” Will tugged at his cap again but it wouldn’t come any further over his face.
Until that day, baseball was what his brother Tom played on Saturday mornings. Tom played on the local Little League team and got to wear a gray flannel uniform with cobalt trim and lettering across the front. He had a matching baseball cap with a cursive white S on the front, and even though flannel seemed warm for the summer, Will wished he had a uniform like Tom’s. Each game day, Will’s mother gave him a dime which he used to buy a grape Bubs Daddy from the green and white painted concession stand, and he and his sister walked around the ball field all through the game, nibbling pieces off the foot-long tube of bubble gum until he hardly had any more room in his mouth for it, listening to fans taunt the other team with calls like “We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher” and “Batter-ay, batter-ay, ” neither of which made any sense to him.
Will and his father sat just a few rows up from first base. His father turned to him and pointed at the man standing at the base. “That’s Ernie Banks. Best player the Cubs have ever had. Pay attention; he’s a legend.” Will watched Ernie Banks like he was told. He watched him play the base, he watched him when he batted, he watched him as he sat in the dugout. There may as well have been no other players on the field; he only watched Ernie Banks. He studied the way he kept just one toe on the bag while he stretched his other leg and arm out as far as he could to nab a ball on a line drive down the first base line. Will only stopped watching Ernie Banks when a vendor walked by calling “Peanuts! Get your peanuts!” He looked at his father then, with wide green eyes that always seemed to serve him well with his dad.
“You won’t like them. You have to open them. And they have little skins on the inside that will make you squirmy. You want Cracker Jacks instead.”
Will said nothing, but held his gaze. Finally his father waved the peanut vendor over and passed a quarter down the row. The vendor threw a bag of peanuts back, which his father picked out of the air like he’d seen Ernie Banks do. He opened the package, took out two peanuts, one of which he handed one to Will and the other he held the long way between his thumb and index finger. “Watch what I do now.” He gave the peanut a quick squeeze and it split clean down the middle. He turned the shell over, dropping two well-dressed peanuts into his palm, then gave each one another little pinch between his fingers, sliding them out of the brown skins. He popped them into his mouth and smiled at Will.
“Now you try. I’m not opening them for you.”
Will positioned the peanut the way he’d seen his father do, then squeezed. The peanut did not budge. He squeezed again, feeling his small muscles tighten up and down his arm but still the shell did not crack. He glanced at his father, who was watching Ernie Banks. He put his two hands together, thumb over thumb and index over index and squeezed one more time until his hands shook, hoping his father wouldn’t see it took both hands. The peanut cracked down the seam and Will was so surprised when the shell gave way he nearly dropped it on the ground. He held it open in his palm, studying the round peanuts inside, thinking they looked like stowaways hiding under brown blankets in a small boat. He picked one out of the shell and gently squeezed it out of its skin. His father was right: he didn’t like the feel of the thin skin between his fingers, and shook it off his hand quickly. He wiggled in his seat but he needed his father to be wrong about this. Will spent the rest of the game squeezing peanut shells until his hands hurt, slipping each out of its skin and eating every last one until his belly ached, but not saying a word to his father.
Now the nearest ball park was a good four hours away, but sometimes he drove to the city just to watch a game no matter who was playing. He always sat up from first base, and always bought a bag of peanuts, crushing each one between his index and thumb with a single crisp snap. Only rarely did he squirm in his seat when he slid the peanuts out of their skins.
The phone in his holster buzzed and he tapped his earpiece to answer the call.
“Claims, Will Phillips.”
“Hello? Can I talk to Will Phillips?”
“This is Phillips.”
“This is Joe Murphy. Do you remember me?”
“Sure, Joe. Of course I remember.” He looked at Mad Dog and rolled his eyes. “Is everything okay? It’s not raining there, is it?”
“No, no. It’s not raining. Listen, I was just tidying things up after you left today.”
“Is that right? You were tidying things up, huh?” Will smiled.
“Yeah. I like to keep things from getting out of hand. Say, I found your Thermos jug on my coffee table. What do you think I should do with it? I could bring it to your office tomorrow.”
The last thing Will needed was Joe showing up at the office. He’d have no way to get him to leave.
“No, it’s okay. I have another, ” he lied. “I come out your way pretty often. How about if I stop by the next time and pick it up?”
“Oh, sure. That would work. When do you think that will be? Tomorrow? I’ll be gone for doctor’s appointments on Friday.”
“Not this week, I’m sure. But I’ll let you know when I’m coming, Joe.”
“I’ll just rinse it out and have it waiting for you here then.”
“Perfect, Joe. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll be in touch, alright?
Will tapped his earpiece to end the call and rubbed the back of his neck. Mad Dog slapped himself on the leg and laughed out loud. “Oh, little Willy-boy. You got yourself a grandpa. I’ll betcha a dime and a donut he hid your Thermos when you got ready to leave so you’d forget it. He’s got you made.”
“I thought I told you to shut up.”
(to be continued)