Foul Territory Chapter 4

     In Baltimore, I parked my car about four levels below ground for an exorbitant fee, and emerged onto Pratt Street. It was a typical Baltimore July day, blazing hot with stifling humidity.

     As I walked the three blocks to the Alehouse, I shared the sidewalk with hundreds of people in business suits, making their way from their rectilinear monstrosities of glass and steel to their cars. Pratt Street itself was like a parking lot, the cars creeping along from red light to red light, a few car lengths at a time. Their engines and their exhaust added to the heat already radiating from the pavement, and pulsing down from the hazy sky. A tractor trailer caught up to me as I walked, and became my companion, wafting hot air and diesel emissions in my face for the remainder of my stroll. The noise was deafening.

     I saw Russell before he saw me. He was sitting at an outside table, sipping from a bottle of Stella Artois and watching the passersby. He was dressed sensibly in cargo shorts and sandals. He did have a polo shirt on, but that by itself I could live with.

     Again I was struck by how well he had aged. This guy could give George Clooney a run for his money, I thought. Son of a bitch must’ve hit the genetic lottery.

     As I neared him, his attention was focused on the breasts of a well-endowed young lady walking past the Alehouse, so I spoke his name as I approached the table.

     “Keith!” he said as he turned to face me. He rose, smiling, and offered his hand. “Good to see ya.”

     “Likewise,” I said as we shook hands.

     “So how’ve you been?”

     I shrugged. “Gained fifteen pounds since Easter,” I said.

     He burst out laughing. “I knew you looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

     “You, on the other hand, look ten years younger than you ought to.”

     He waved that off. “Healthy living,” he said. “You wanna eat inside or outside?”

     “Not out here. If the heat don’t kill us, the noise will.”

     We got a table inside. I ordered a chicken Chesapeake sandwich and he went for crab cakes. We both ordered beers.

     After a bit of initial awkwardness, we warmed up to each other and conversation flowed smoothly from one subject to the next. We got the “what do you do” thing out of the way first. Turned out Russell was a traveling service rep for a large medical/pharmaceutical company. He repaired diagnostic machinery such as mass spectrometers and the like. He started throwing some technical jargon at me that went right over my head, so I stopped him before I went glassy-eyed.

     He laughed. “Sorry. I can go on and on about it. You get the picture.”

     When he heard about the mundane life of a retired school teacher, he was agog. “Son, we gotta get you out,” he said.

     “We are out.”

     “No, I mean where there’s women. Tomorrow night, you and me are goin’ to a club.”

     “Wait. Tomorrow night?”

     “Yeah. And don’t tell me you have something else to do, ’cause we both know you don’t.”

     “Well … I mean…”

     “It’s settled.”

     The very idea made me cringe, and it wasn’t just my natural penchant for avoiding social situations; I was worried about missing the next night’s game. But I decided to let it ride for the time being, and hope that a solution would present itself between now and then.

     From there the conversation moved to our families. I told him about my ex, my two kids, and my grandkids. I learned that he was married and had three kids, two boys and a girl. Two of them were married and the other was in her sophomore year at Duke.

     Then we talked weather, and food, and beer. We talked about the Inner Harbor, and Camden Yards, and the Convention Center, all of which we agreed he needed to see before leaving town.

     We brushed on baseball, but Russell deflected that one by explaining that he hadn’t played since he was ten, and hadn’t had much chance to watch it since then, either. My earlier fears had turned out to be well founded in that respect.

     He was a fun, affable guy, and outside of his pushiness about going out the next night, I found myself enjoying his company. I did notice that he had an eye for the ladies, and it made me wonder about the dynamics of his marriage. But that wasn’t my business.

     We walked from the Alehouse to the ball park, this time sharing the sidewalk with more than a few other baseball fans, and entered through the Eutaw Street gate. We got fresh beers, watched BP from the flag court, and then went to our seats.

     The O’s lost to the damn Yankees, 6-4, but we managed to have a good time in spite of them. The beer helped. I stopped drinking in the fifth, mindful of the fact that I had to drive home, but Russell kept pounding ’em right up until last call.

     The Orioles made a fielding blunder in the seventh that led directly to their defeat. With nobody out and runners on first and third, the Yankee batter hit a fly ball deep to center field. Adam Jones hauled it in, and then made a heroic attempt to gun down the runner who had tagged up at third. His throw was way off the mark, and Matt Weiters had to scramble for it. By the time he picked it up, the Yankee runner from first base had made it all the way to third, putting the potential winning run ninety feet away from home. Out of respect for the family sitting in front of us, I tried to keep my cursing under control. But I was livid. “Adam!” I fumed. “How could you do that?”

     “He did the best he could,” Russell said. “What else could he have done?”

     “Hit the cutoff man,” I said, in a tone of voice that let him know I thought it a stupid question. “He had no shot at home, but if he’d hit the cutoff man, that runner would still be on first.”

     Russell stared at me. I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about. “It’s Baseball 101, Russell. Hit the cutoff man. Have you forgotten that much? You really have been out of it.”

     He laughed it off. “I told you, baseball’s not big in Roanoke. We’re all about NASCAR.”

     After the game we walked to our cars. It turned out we were in the same garage, so Russell followed me back to Eldersburg.

     I gave him the nickel tour of my little brick rancher, including the Fortress of Solitude, which he loved, and Jesse’s old room, where he would bed down that night. Then we grabbed two more beers from the fridge and sat in the living room and talked some more. Our conversation went everywhere, but strangely touched on our past together only once, and briefly.

     “Hey,” I said. “You remember Chester Poole?”

     “Umm …” he said.

     “Right fielder. Little guy, blond hair, blue eyes.”

     “Oh, right, right! Whatever happened to him?”

     “He turned into a baseball career guy. He played like fifteen years in the minors, mostly in the Dodgers system. I think he even got a September call-up one year. Now he manages, last I heard somewhere in Iowa. Can you believe it?”

     “Damn. That’s quite an accomplishment.”

     “Yeah, especially for him.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Well, he … he sucked, remember? That’s why he was in right field. He couldn’t catch a ball to save his life.”

     He laughed. “Oh, yeah. Well, we were all young. Everybody changes.”

     “Yeah. Even us.”

     “Speakin’ of us, how’d you end up becomin’ a science teacher? I never would’ve guessed that.”

     From there we got into our respective career paths for a while, and the subject of the 9-10 Pirates never came up again.

     I’d have to say we had a really good time. It was impossible not to like him. At the time, I thought he was enjoying my company as well.

     The beer seemed to have no effect on Russell, but around one in the morning my eyes were starting to droop. “I think I’m hitting the wall,” I said.

     “I’m sorry,” he said. “I talk too much. By all means, let’s call it a night. I need to get up early, anyway.”

     We said goodnight and went to our respective rooms. I was asleep within minutes.

***

     Every house has its own voice, an assortment of furtive sounds it makes in the middle of the night. Settling noises, walls creaking and popping as they expand and contract with changes in temperature, ductwork pinging, refrigerators humming, furnaces or air conditioners running, water pumps building pressure, fans rattling. I’d lived alone in my house for long enough that I no longer heard it talking, but anything out of the ordinary alerted me like a siren.

     In the wee hours, I woke up when I heard the floor creaking out in the hall. I was alarmed at first, but then I remembered I had a house guest. I figured Russell was getting up to hit the can, or maybe grab something from the fridge. I rolled over and went back to sleep, and for the rest of the night I slept more soundly than I had in months.

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