Fiction: Card Show

 

 Read More: A brief interview with Sarah Freligh

 

His agent had promised two hours and out, but Bobby Lee Harvey had been at it for nearly three now and the line wasn’t getting any shorter. His fingers were numb from scrawling his signature across hundreds of baseballs, his mouth had long since frozen in what resembled a grin, and his neck needed adjusting from all the uh-huhing he’d done. And if he had so much as a dime for every time some yahoo came up to him and said, Bobby Lee, remember me?, well, he’d never have to do one of these stupid card shows again, simple as that.

He signed a ball for a woman with a pretty face and fat arms and handed it back to her. As soon as she moved away, he sneaked a glance at the line again. Sure enough, the little blonde was still there though she didn’t look any closer than she’d been a half hour ago when he first spotted her. Eighteen, maybe nineteen tops. Cute in a sorority sister kind of way, that kind of chewed off look to her hair that was fashionable now. Tan, too, but a little on the orange side, maybe one of those booths where they spray it on. Hell, was anything real anymore? Thirty years ago a tan came from the sun, and tits were gifts from the body gods. He’d never forget the first time he touched a fake one, how they  felt like hockey pucks in his palm, hard and rubbery. The girl’s name had been fake too, Siouxsie or something like that. She’d left him a note the next morning saying what a nice time she’d had and by the way, she took a fifty from his wallet for cab fare.

One of the girls working the card show set a fresh bottle of mineral water next to his elbow. He would have given his left nut for a cold Budweiser but Sheila, the girdled bitch in charge, had put the kibosh on that. “This is a family event,” she’d said.

He took a sip and shifted in his seat. Nearly time for a piss break, though he was damned if he’d do it again in the men’s room around the corner. The last time, he’d just unzipped and was pressed up against the urinal ready to let loose when he got waylaid by a nut-case fan who recounted every pitch of the last three outs of the no-hitter Bobby Lee had thrown against Atlanta in ’95. A man should be able to pee in silence, if not in private.

His view was blocked again by a big guy in a lime green golf shirt holding out his meaty hand.  “Remember me? Stan Davis? That pro-am at Riverside? You hooked that drive on the eighteenth, cost us a bundle.”

Bobby Lee didn’t remember. “Sure, sure. Hey, Stan, good to see you.”

“This is my boy, Stuart,” Stan said, gesturing at a sullen looking kid in saggy gang-banger jeans.

“Hey, Stu,” Bobby Lee said.

“Stuart,” the kid muttered.

Bobby Lee figured the kid for 11, 12, maybe. A tangle of legs and arms, a crop of zits blooming on his chin. Just like Kyle at that age, right around the time Bobby Lee and Betsy finally called it quits. They’d drawn straws over who was going to break the news to the kid. Bobby Lee lost.

“I’ve been telling Stuart here that Bobby Lee Harvey is going to the Hall of Fame someday. Haven’t I, kid?”

The kid mumbled something that might have been yeah, though it could have been fuck no. Bobby Lee wondered if the kid had a sister. If so, he’d bet his World Series ring that she had to tap dance and sing “Good Ship, Lollypop” at parties.

“Something wrong with those jackasses at Cooperstown on that last ballot,” Stan boomed.

“Well, I don’t know,” Bobby Lee said. “But that’s sure nice of you to say.”

“Don’t get me wrong. Tony and Cal are—I should say were—great, great players. But there’s only one Bobby Lee Harvey.”

Bobby Lee nodded. “Well, thanks.”

“How about a drink later?” Stan said. “My club’s right—”

“Sorry.” Bobby Lee shrugged and tried to look sincere. “The wife’s expecting me for dinner.” That would come as news to The Icy Lisa who was four states away. “Some other time, okay?”

“Sure thing,” said Stan. He pumped Bobby Lee’s hand again and winked. “Love to get you out on the links again, maybe win some of that money back.”

Bobby Lee watched him herding Stuart away and wondered again why there were so many guys like Stan at card shows. Or maybe he just remembered the Stans and not the other people, the ones who were kind of shy and sort of awkward around him. The kind of people who didn’t feel like they owned you because they’d been to a couple of ball games or seen his picture in Sports Illustrated, a phenomena his wife called “the TV factor.” Lisa anchored the 6 o’clock news for one of the stations in Philly and whenever they went out to dinner or a movie (which wasn’t all that often these days), people spoke to Lisa as if she were a member of their family who’d gone and gotten famous: familiar and a little proprietary. Heck, to them, she was part of their living room. It annoyed the hell out her and it amused Bobby Lee to see her like that, trying to smile her phony smile with her nostrils flaring and two angry pink spots high up on her cheeks.

He signed a ball for a fat kid and slipped him one of the autographed rookie cards Bobby Lee kept around. “For special people,” he said to the kid with a wink. “Don’t go selling it on me now.”

“I won’t,” the kid said. Voice like a flute. Probably got the shit kicked out of him regular on the school yard, the way Bobby Lee had until one of his phys ed teachers had noticed he could throw a softball hard and straight at a target nine times out of ten. He found it was even easier with a baseball.  He experimented a little and discovered he could curve it, too, start it outside the plate and run it in on a right-handed batter at the last second. By the time he was drafted, just out of high school, he counted five different pitches in his arsenal. He used to like to tell reporters that his signing bonus added up to $20,000 for each pitch he threw, go figure it out.

What an asshole he’d been.

The little blonde was two autographs away now. Close-up, she showed some wear and tear. Her nail polish was chipped and her thumb was bleeding from where she’d probably picked at a hangnail. She reminded him a little of the girls who used to hang outside of the locker room door when he played for Fort Myers in the Florida State League, pretty in a Woolworth kind of way. He’d step out into the heat and humidity and there’d be a dozen of girls swarming around the door, the way bugs were drawn to the dim mercury light. Heck, they must have been bored as he was then in that hot as hell town, nothing to do all day but sit around at the little swimming pool with the scummy water. That or sit inside and watch soap operas all afternoon in the crappy place he’d shared with three other guys, unfurnished except for a couple of mattresses and the plastic table and chairs one of them had boosted from a neighbor’s patio late one night. The girls were hoping for a meal ticket out of town, while all Bobby Lee was wanted a good lay, a warm body to be close to for a little while before he fell off into sleep. Most of the girls understood the bargain they were making, and he learned to stay away from the ones who didn’t.

Bobby Lee straightened his tie and ran his tongue over his teeth, checking for crud.  Only then did he give the little blonde a big smile. “Hey there.”

She adjusted the shoulder strap of her purse and smiled back. “Hey there yourself.” One of her front teeth overlapped the tooth next to it, something he found sexy as hell. Lisa had dragged him to a French movie where the lead actress had teeth like that. The whole movie, he’d kept his legs crossed in a vain effort to tame the boner poking at his jeans.

He tapped his pen and waited for the blonde to hand him a ball or a baseball card to sign, but she just stood there, smiling down at him with her sexy teeth and puffy lips.  “Well,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. She slapped the pockets of her jeans, searching for something. His rookie card, it turned out. There he was, twenty years old, all ears and teeth, worth ten bucks on eBay.

“So,” he said clicking his pen with a flourish, “who should I sign it to?”

“Let me see,” she said, bending over to prop her elbows on the table. “How about  ‘to my daughter’?”

“Your daughter, huh? What’s her name?”

She shook her head and leaned in so close he could count the freckles on her nose. “Not my daughter,” she whispered. “It’s for me, jerkoff. I am your daughter.”

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In the car, the girl gave him a lot of lip about not fastening her seat belt, something about a plot by the government to turn them into sheep but mostly she refused because she didn’t believe in them. Bobby Lee said it was a seat belt, for God’s sake, not a religious cult and that if she rode with him, she’d damn well better put it on. She just shook her head and looked out the window. He told her the car wouldn’t start unless she fastened her seat belt and to demonstrate, he stuck the key into the ignition where it made a feeble clicking sound when he tried to turn it.

“So I guess we sit here until we starve to death,” he said cheerfully.

She grumbled something that sounded like oh, okay, and fastened her seat belt.

“Well, good,” Bobby Lee said.

“These things can kill you, you know,” she said.

Bobby Lee checked the rear view mirror before backing cautiously into the parking lot. He’d talked her into waiting around for him until he was finished signing, just a half hour or so, judging by the line. Still, he’d been afraid she’d split so asked one of the water girls for an extra chair and a couple more Perriers. He’d introduced her as “his assistant.”

“I am not kidding you,” she said now. “This friend of mine? She crashed head-on into a semi and the seat belt like to have cut her in two.”

“Right,” he said. He flipped on his turn signal and pulled onto the highway.

“The coroner said so. Or the M.E. Someone.”

“Come on. The seat belt?”

“Okay, so I didn’t know her. I only read about it in the newspaper. The thing is, it can happen. Seat belts can cut you in two.”

“Anything can happen, I suppose,” Bobby Lee said. He looked out the window, at the blur of strip malls and fast food restaurants. He remembered the long bus trip in the minors along this same road, how none of this had been here except one lone McDonald’s in the middle of a cornfield. The bus would pull in and they’d get out, still in uniform because in A ball there were no showers in the clubhouse or worse yet, the water would be freezing.  They’d get out of the bus one by one, affecting that cocky, crooked walk young ballplayers seemed to favor, and by the time they queued up in front of the counter, everyone in the place had turned to stare at them. If the weather was nice, they took their Big Macs and Quarter Pounders and fries out to the picnic table next to the cornfield and listened to the late summer sound of locusts buzzing away. Funny, how much he had hated it then, how he couldn’t wait to ditch it for the next thing and the next. And how nostalgic he was for it all now.

Get over it, The Icy Lisa whispered in his head.

The girl murmured something, rousing him out of his head.

“Say again,” he said.

“A Cadillac,” she said, tracing the raised gold on the glove compartment. “Is it new?”

The question startled him. “New,” he repeated.

“Like, this year or something.” She twisted a strand of her bangs around her finger.

“Probably last year,” he said.

“Oh.”

“It’s just a rental,” he said. “What they gave me at the airport.”

“Oh.” She nodded. “Does the radio work?”

“Sure,” he said. The truth was, ever since rental cars had gone digital on him, he’d quit listening to the radio. The sheer number of buttons baffled him and he refused to turn the radio on, not even for a ball game. Correction, much less for a ball game, which he found he couldn’t listen to without cursing under his breath.

“No rap music,” he said. “And not too loud.”

She looked at him sideways. “Rap music?”

“Or whatever you call it.”

“Rap music is an oxymoron.”

He smiled. “An oxy-hoosis?“ He knew what the word meant, but he wanted to hear her say it again. For some reason, it pleased him that she knew words like that. His daughter. Or whoever she was.

“An oxymoron. Like, you know, jumbo shrimp. Or military intelligence.”

“How’d you get so educated?” he said.

She fiddled with one of the knobs. “I went to high school. Didn’t you?”

He laughed. “Sometimes.”

She settled on a station with some girl singer who sounded like Joni Mitchell but wasn’t. The girl had a high voice, a sweet voice that made him think of bells or a flute and he told her so, out loud, that she could really sing.

“Yeah,” she said, laughing bitterly. “Card show today, The Voice tomorrow.”

“You could learn,” he said. People learned to sing, didn’t they? Like he learned how to throw a ball, taught to hold his fingers just so, cock his arm and aim it at the plate.

“Using what for money, wooden nickels?”

He almost said, I’ll pay for it, but caught himself in time. He didn’t even know her name, for God’s sake, this person who claimed to be his daughter. Which one of those long-ago girls had produced this person? Body against body, body into body. Ten minutes, give or take, and this.

This. God.

“You know,” he said, “I don’t even know your name.”

She looked away again and twisted up her hair. “Tina,” she said.

“Tina,” he said. “Pretty.”

“Well, Cristina really. Without an ‘h,’” she said. “My mother thought it sounded classy.”

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“Cristina,” he said, tasting it. He thought of tropical fruit, of a rum drink with three kinds of juice and a little red umbrella on top.

An old song came on, one he thought she wouldn’t have known but she sang along with the lead singer, her voice soaring in harmony an octave above his. Something by Foreigner, he thought, full of choirs and orchestras of sobbing violins. She kept singing, the next song and the next, and quit only when he pulled into a parking spot in front of the restaurant and shut off the ignition and still they sat there, listening to the click and dangle of metal against metal.

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Halfway through the bottle of wine he’d insisted on ordering, she told him she had known for years.

“Known what?” he said. He was hungry but he didn’t want to pick up the menu and scan it, not yet.

“Known about you.” She drained her glass and waited as a waiter materialized to fill it for her.

He wasn’t sure what to do with that. “You in school?” he said. “College or something?”

She looked at him the way Lisa did when he said something she found trivial, stupid or unworthy. Which was most everything these days. “How old do you think I am?”

“Nineteen? Twenty-one? I don’t know.”

“I’m twenty-six. Twenty-seven next month.”

He counted back, in his head and on his fingers on his lap under the cover of tablecloth. 1988, the summer of his ascendancy through the minors: Bluefield, West Virginia, the mornings so cold he wore gloves to take out trash bags of beer cans. Then the call he’d been waiting for, a jump from the rookie league all the way up to A ball in Florida. A month in Fort Myers, thunderstorms rolling in every afternoon around four, and from there to Triple A Omaha in late July, the bugs big as Buicks and the ballfield ripe with stink from the stockyards a mile away. The big club by the end of the summer, and adios to the minors forever.

Funny how he could remember the weather and the smells, but forget about the girls he laid. A lot of Trishas, some Michelles and Marys. One Edith. That one he remembered because he had an aunt named Edith, though the girl looked nothing like his aunt. Who names their child Edith anymore, he’d asked her in the morning. She rolled over, buck naked and unashamed, and stared at him for a full second: “My mother apparently.” The rest of the girls were a blank, a parade of blondes with long hair and legs.

He could ask this Tina who her mother was, what town she was from. Get it over with now. But he was in no hurry.

He signaled to the waiter, and ordered a second bottle of wine. Said they’d wait to order dinner, if that was okay.

“I hope you like calamari,” he said. His son loved it, about the only thing they agreed on anymore.  “Squid,” he added helpfully.

She wrinkled her nose. “I have to pee like you wouldn’t believe.”

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The calamari arrived just as she did, freshly lipsticked and combed. She also smelled humid, something floral, though he couldn’t tell the difference between a rose and a lilac. Whatever they used to make perfume.

She forked up a healthy portion of calamari and chewed. “Like lemony rubber bands,” she said. “But good.”

He laughed. “That’s what my son thinks, too.”

She poured him another glass of wine, added a splash to her half-full glass. He felt giddy and off-balance. He was drinking too fast. The dizzy rush he was feeling would resolve itself, in an hour or so, into a horizontal ache across his forehead, later on into a low-grade sorrow. Better, maybe, to have ordered a scotch/rocks to sip on, lulling himself into a cheerful drunk.

He patted around his chest for his wallet, locating it in the unfamiliar territory of his sport coat. He showed her the picture he’d taken of Kyle at eight, wearing a tiny replica of Bobby Lee’s own uniform, holding a bat in his hands and scowling at the camera. Take Your Kid to Work Day or some such occasion. The next year Kyle refused to go, locking himself in his room to listen to show tunes. He’d discovered musical comedy at camp and spent hours practicing in front of the mirror in his bedroom. When Bobby Lee worried out loud that his kid was turning into a fruitcake, his then-wife said better that than a stupid jock. That was the beginning of the end of them.

“Cute,” Tina said. She did something to her phone to make a photo pop up, held it up for him to see. “This is Mom,” she said.

He squinted at the picture: A blonde woman, thick-armed and heavy around the middle,  smiled at him over a birthday cake with a thicket of lighted candles. Happy birthday, somebody, name unreadable. He subtracted imagined the hair sprung from its middle-aged bubble, smoothed out the smile lines bracketing her mouth, subtracted forty pounds.

He couldn’t. He couldn’t remember her.

“Delores,” Tina said. “Dee for short.”

He shook his head.

“She cut hair,” Tina added helpfully.

A flash then, like a snapshot popping off on the screen of his brain: A chair, a cape, a girl with scissors and an electric razor, his roommate Benny saying Not too short, honey. Yeah. Florida. That girl and a friend had stopped by the apartment on an off-day, bringing beer and cupcakes decorated like baseballs. They’d all spent the day at the swimming pool, drinking beer and having chicken fights that involved a lot of tugging at bikini tops.

“Cupcakes,” he said.

“Mom made cupcakes?”

“Some girl did,” he said. He remembered the sudden dark cool of the apartment, the relief of it after the white-hot afternoon sun. The thrum of beer in his head as he stood over the toilet and peed. The mosaic tile of the bathroom, shades of orange to match the wall-to-wall shag in the living room.  He’d spent more than one night passed out on the floor. Back then he could sleep for an hour or so, anywhere, wake up fresh and un-hungover, pitch nine innings and do it all over again that night.

“You drove a sports car,” Tina said. “She told me. Something foreign.”

“Right,” he said. He studied his reflection in the wine glass, twirled the stem in his fingers.

“Expensive,” she said.

“Not so much,” he said, though the 280Z had cost him most of his bonus because of the color. He’d wanted blue, a special blue somewhere between royal and navy, a blue the color of the sky right before the sun went down. L’heure bleue, Lisa had told him once. The blue hour.

“So, you drove it out of town and never looked back.”

He picked up the menu. “How about we order some food?”

“You were checking me out.” She jerked the napkin in her hands. “Back there at the card show.”

Steak, he thought. And a baked potato, loaded with sour cream and butter. No salad, either. Lisa would have insisted he order salad, remind him about the twenty pounds he’d gained in the last year.

“I saw you,” she said, louder now. […]


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Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, the winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis; Sort of Gone, and A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice Award from Accents Publishing. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the New York Council on the Arts. “Card Show” is a work of fiction derived from Ms. Freligh’s former life as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 Read More: A brief interview with Sarah Freligh