Foul Territory Chapter 3

     “I’ll be in your town next weekend,” read the message, “and maybe a few days into next week. I’ll be arriving on Friday afternoon. Want to hook up for dinner?”

     Not happening, I thought. I’ll be at the ball park that evening. I’d planned to file into Camden Yards at five, when the gates opened, so I could catch batting practice. That was my routine, and it was non-negotiable.  

     With my fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to type my regrets, it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet found anyone to take the other ticket.

Hell, I thought, maybe it was meant to be.

     In my reply, I explained the situation. I suggested we meet at the Pratt Street Alehouse for early dinner, and from there we could walk to Camden Yards. What better way for two old teammates to spend an evening?

     “Not sure about the game,” he answered. “I’m in town for a conference, there may be activities Friday night that require my attendance. I’ll check.”

     What the hell? He was the one who’d brought up dinner, so he must have already checked his schedule. His answer didn’t make sense.

     What kind of business was he in, anyway? The annoyingly obligatory question, “What do you do?” hadn’t yet come up between us, in either direction.

     Ease up on him, I said to myself. He’d been living in Roanoke for a long time, two hundred fifty miles from the nearest major league team, which would have been the Nationals. Maybe he was a Nats fan, or he followed the some minor league team, or perhaps … shudder … he wasn’t even into baseball at all. The Russell that I remembered would have hopped all over any chance to go to any baseball game; but again, people change.

     As I was thinking this through, another message popped up: “Just checked. I’m clear Friday night! Timing will be tight, but it sounds like a blast! My flight lands at 2:15. I need to pick up a rental and check in at the Hyatt. Should be able to be at the Alehouse by 4. That work for you?”

     “Perfect,” I said. “See you then.” We exchanged cell numbers, and left it at that.

     Over the next week, I found myself looking forward to our meeting, but with a measure of trepidation. I actually worried about what to wear. What kind of guy was Russell now? I had no idea what type of work he did, but the fact that he traveled a lot and was attending a conference suggested that he was white collar. Would he show up in a polo shirt, khakis, and Sperrys? I hoped not.

     When I realized I was acting the way I did before my first date with Eleanor, I got hold of myself. The Alehouse catered to pre-game crowds. It wasn’t like we were meeting at Ruth’s Chris or Fogo de Chão, for Christ’s sake. I would dress as I normally dressed for a ball game. If Russell didn’t, that would be his problem.

     Friday came. As I was donning my orange “In Buck We Trust” t-shirt, my cellphone rang. It was Russell.

     “Hey, Keith, it’s Russell.” It was the first time I’d heard his voice in forty-five years. I noticed that he’d reached puberty since then.

     “Everything okay?” I asked. “I was just getting ready to walk out the door.”

     “Slight problem. The hotel screwed up my reservation. They say the place is booked up now and they can’t give me a room.”

     “Oh, shit. Probably full of Yankee fans.”

     “Maybe, I don’t know. All I know is, I’m pissed. I made the reservation a month ago, and they have no record of it. Anyway, the reason I’m calling is that I think I’m going to have to skip dinner. I can still meet you for the game, but right now I need to line up some other place to stay.” He spoke quickly in a thick Southern Virginia accent that softened all the consonants and blurred them into each other. I had to pay close attention to understand him.

     “Damn,” I said, “that sucks. What time, then?”

     “Not sure. I’ll make some phone calls, and see what’s available. There’s about eight other hotels within walking distance. I reckon one of them must have a room, don’t you think? I’ll give you a call when I get settled.”

     “Listen,” I said without thinking, “forget about all that. I’ve been looking forward to this all week, and I don’t want to miss the Alehouse. You’re not gonna find a place anyway, not when the Skankees are in town. Why don’t you just crash at my place tonight, and you can look for a place tomorrow?”

     “I don’t know, Keith. I wouldn’t want to impose …”

     “No imposition at all. I live alone. Really, it’s no problem.”

     “Well … all right, I suppose. I can just leave my bags in the trunk and find a parking garage, I guess. Yeah, why not? It’s a good idea. Alehouse at four?”

     “You betcha.”

     “Thanks, Keith. I really appreciate it.”

     “Like I said, no problem. I’ll see you in …” I glanced at the clock. “… about an hour.”

     I hung up, unable to believe what had come out of my mouth. I felt like I’d just thrown a slider to Miguel Cabrera, and it was supposed to break down and away, but it’s hanging right in his sweet spot and he’s getting ready to swing at it. Why in God’s name had I offered Russell my house? I didn’t know this guy. He’d been okay as a boyhood friend; in fact, we’d been best friends for about twenty-four hours. But that was a hell of a long time ago. For all I knew, he was a serial killer now, or a hit man for the mob. Or a politician. Jesus. What had I been thinking?

     Well, it was done. Might as well make the best of it. Jesse, at least, would be proud of me.

     My son worried about me a lot. He said I was becoming a recluse, especially since I lost Eleanor. He always told me I needed to loosen up, do things, meet people and let them into my life. Take chances.

     Trust somebody.

     He was right, to a point. I knew this intellectually, if not emotionally. Every day was the same for me. I woke up, I ate, I took my Protonix and baby aspirin, some days I went to work and came home, I cut the grass or did laundry, I ate some more, I did dishes, I watched the Orioles, I took my Lipitor, and I went to bed. I seldom talked to anyone except at the market, and even there, only to answer questions. I mean, I worked in produce. My conversations typically went something like, Can you tell me where the limes are? Right over there, ma’am. Or, Do you guys carry jicama? No, I’m sorry, we don’t. Try Wegman’s.

     Not exactly a good way to develop healthy and fulfilling relationships. Although it was, in fact, the way I’d met Eleanor. But look how that turned out.

     Maybe this thing with Russell would be good for me. I thought about calling Jesse right then to tell him about it, hoping it would make him happy and proud of his old man, but then I remembered he was in Orlando with his wife and kids, doing theme parks all week.

     As a precaution, I shot the deadbolt in the door to the back room of my basement. Then I donned my favorite Orioles hat and locked up the house.

All the way into town, I thought about what I’d done, and I managed to convince myself that it was a step in the right direction. I had to get past what had happened to me, someday, somehow. I had to learn to trust again. I understood that, but it still went against the grain for me to take chances like this. To me it was like closing your eyes and sticking your arm into a lion cage, and hoping like hell you don’t pull back a bloody stump.

     Relax, I told myself. It was just for a night. Russell would find a room on Saturday, and it would be over. I could breathe a sigh and feel like I’d accomplished something. I looked forward to that moment.

     And who knew? I might even have a good time between now and then.