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Richie Hebner

February 17, 2008
 

Elysium

Chapter One

I’m in the middle of my life. I’m lost. Richie Hebner stands before me.

Richie Hebner stands before me in his windbreaker and his old tyme Pirates cap. He gazes right at me, or maybe through me, gaping, vacant. He reminds me of the older guys in my high school, back when I was in the adjoining junior high, the ones who talked in heroically hoarse voices about getting inebriated and took auto shop and occasionally rained ring-spiked blows down upon one another during publicized fistfights “up on the bank.” They had sparse mustaches and interchangeable feathered haircuts and sexually complicit cigarette-smoking girlfriends with interchangeable feathered haircuts. They had part-time jobs that required physical strength and a certain vacancy of gaze.

“You’re Richie Hebner,” I try to say. I recall the most renowned of all back-of-the-card cartoons. “You dig graves. Richie Hebner,” I try to say. “In the offseason. In the offseason you dig graves.” The words amount to no more than vibrations in my body, seismic rumblings.

Richie Hebner just continues to fix me with that gaze that makes it seem he doesn’t quite see me, like he just roasted one in the parking lot with a couple buddies while cranking some Styx on the eight-track. It’s a gaze that makes me feel like I’m the one who’s not quite all here, a junior high nobody, a shade.

It’s still chilly, not spring yet, everything alive seemingly pounded unreachably deep underground. We’re on something like a baseball field, some other shadowy figures in baseball uniforms drifting around.

Richie Hebner turns and walks toward third base. I find myself following. Third base is where they put him when they weren’t benching him against tough lefties. He was a butcher at third base, but he could rake right-handed pitching so they got him into the lineup when they could. Now, he kicks with his cleats at the ground near the third base bag in the familiar chicken scratch dance of the infielder between pitches. His hands are in the pockets of his windbreaker, however, adding to the impression that there isn’t going to be any baseball played on this diamond today, that this place I have come to is not quite a baseball field, but rather some shadowy realm that is neither here nor there, the kind of place where you might end up if you were in the middle of life, lost.

At first the kicking of his cleats only traces what look like almost-decipherable messages in the dust. I feel like if I could only read them I could learn how to make my way back to where I belong. But then his kicking begins to carve out swaths in the earth, the earth yielding to Richie Hebner. The swaths cut deep into the earth and soon form a hole as deep and wide as a grave. I stand nearby on the third base bag as if it’s an island, as if I’m afraid that the earth will give way everywhere. Richie Hebner looks up from his effortless work. He is standing in the hole. All but his head and the top of his torso is hidden from view. He looks at me, or maybe through me, gaping, vacant. Then he turns and seems to duck down, disappearing from view.

From far off come the sounds of baseball, the sounds of spring, the sounds of life. Voices calling, the echoing crack of the bat. I step from the third base bag to peer down into the hole. I expect to see Richie Hebner crouched or even lying flat on the floor of the grave. Instead I see the back of his windbreaker vanishing down into a downsloping corridor. I find myself stepping into the grave. I find myself following Richie Hebner down the corridor into the darkness underground.

(to be continued)

20 comments

  1. 1.  He reminds me of the older guys in my high school, back when I was in the adjoining junior high, the ones who talked in heroically hoarse voices about getting inebriated and took auto shop and occasionally rained ring-spiked blows down upon one another during publicized fistfights “up on the bank.” They had sparse mustaches and interchangeable feathered haircuts and sexually complicit cigarette-smoking girlfriends with interchangeable feathered haircuts. They had part-time jobs that required physical strength and a certain vacancy of gaze.

    —Hey, I went to that high school, too.


  2. 2.  Josh, are you by any chance a fan of Haruki Murakami? He and Kobo Abe are recent literary discoveries of mine, and I’ve found your stuff to be reminiscent of these Japanese “existential fiction” writers. I highly recommend them.


  3. 3.  Let’s face it: we all went to the same high school. That paragraph encapsulates high school life in the 1970s and 1980s.


  4. 4.  3 Did your high school have pick-ups in the parking lot with actual shotguns in gun racks in the back windows like mine did??


  5. 5.  Boy, this ought to be a trip.


  6. 6.  Keep digging. You guys will reach the 1979 Mets soon enough!


  7. 7.  2 : I’ve had it in mind to read Murakami for years. I’m glad you mentioned Murakami and Abe; I now vow to read some of their stuff before this year is over (if I don’t get crushed by a falling piano or something). Any favorite works for either?

    4 : That sounds too familiar to not have been a part of the parking lot at Randolph Union High School (or as it was chuckling referred to by the Hebner types).

    6 : Ha!


  8. 8.  Whoops, an incomplete thought in my comment above. Meant to say the Hebner types referred to Randolph Union High School as RU High.


  9. 9.  “Richie Hebner just continues to fix me with that gaze that makes it seem he doesn’t quite see me, like he just roasted one in the parking lot with a couple buddies while cranking some Styx on the eight-track.”

    Oh, yeah. These were the guys who put bleach on their tires so that they could make more smoke when they’d do a burnout or a donut after school.


  10. 10.  In my own mind’s eye, to this day there is nothing as menacing as the high school parking lot Richie Hebners. Where I went to high school, they played handball against the high school. What are they doing with themselves these days?


  11. 11.  This sounds like it ought to be a fun ride. I certainly enjoyed the war-drenched interlude but it’s nice to jump back into the vague dream-like world of the 1970s baseball card. And this feels like some Dante’s Inferno type shit. Can’t wait…..


  12. 12.  8 Josh, My school for years on top of the building said “Glenwood gets High”. The gets was spray painted just above a small ‘caret’ symbol. Richie Hebner didn’t go to school here, but Eddie Szabo did.


  13. 13.  Why is this stuff on the web and not in some appropriate literary magazine, again?

    Josh: your way with words and narratives really work. Keep at it!


  14. 14.  “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles” by Murakami
    “The Woman In the Dunes” by Abe

    Hope you enjoy them.

    Hebner was a well-established player when I first became a baseball fan, and then played for many more years after that. He was never great, but he was always present. I’ve had jobs like that, too.


  15. 15.  We had two gangs at Central High, Alpha and Omega, and they would guard the bridge over the lake, causing all sorts of trouble. They all had the same mustache, and they were constantly calling out “714” (the number on the back of a lude).

    They were terrors in gym too. Once, one of them, a crazy-haired guy named Sal, was going up and down the aisles, hitting guys (they skipped me because I knew some of them from grade school and they decided I was okay, sorta like Richie Cunningham, I guess), and when he got to my friend Jake, Jake said, “I’ll do it to myself,” and slapped himself in the face. Sal was so shocked he stopped hitting people and went back to his spot on the floor.

    Murakami is probably my favorite living author, and I love Abe too. WOMAN IN THE DUNES is a must. As far as Murakami goes, I’d start out with NORWEGIAN WOOD, AFTER DARK, or SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN before graduating to BIRD CHRONICLES and KAFKA ON THE SHORE.


  16. 16.  15 : Boy, the number “714” really figured pretty prominently back in the ’70s, didn’t it?

    Thanks for the Murakami recommendations. Much appreciated. I’m trying to time my forthcoming Japanese reading jag with the Red Sox season-opening trip to Japan.


  17. 17.  I was an uncloseted childhood Mets fan.

    Boy, when RIchie Hebner came aboard in 1979, it really seemed as if the dark days were over, and here was a guy that was going to help us TURN THE CORNER.

    Even though it had been less than two years since ownership had imploded the entire franchise, it felt like forever. The Yankees were coming off back-to-back championships, constantly signed “big names,” and ruled the back pages to the extent that the Mets – and their fans- were absolutely forgotten.

    I bided my time pretending hockey was America’s pastime, trying to get into the NASL and the Cosmos, and by purchasing a cheap, twill, adjustable mesh red hat with a blue “B” on the front and semi-whole -heartedly pulling for the Red Sox like mad down the stretch in ’78. No good deed goes unpunished.

    Mets ownership (M.Donald Grant and Lorinda De Roulet) sipped vodka gimlets in the Diamond club, steadfastly refused to sign any free agents with bigger names than Tom Hausman, and seemed unconcerned by empty houses and 6th place. Brothers, we were in all in big trouble.

    I recall large, sweaty post-pubescent Yankee Fan-kids chasing me home and threatning to break my glasses.

    Finally, just as Spring Training ’79 drew to a close there was HOPE! The Mets somehow acquired what I thought (after too much exposure to statistic-riddled pieces of cardboard ) was a BIG NAME> Richie Hebner was going to be a MET!!!

    He always hit for a high average. He had the champion-aura of a winner, coming from the fearsome Pirates!
    He would finally answer the age-old riddle of “who’s on third?”

    Watching him alongside my favorite rookie, 2B Kelvin Chapman -who was clearly destined for great things -,
    and complimenting young stars like Mazzilli and Steve Henderson, it made me swell up with anticipation and pride to know that baby, the METS were BACK!!!!

    postscript: 99 losses. Last place.

    Hebner was mediocre in production and work ethic.

    By the end of October he was gone, having been traded to Detroit for a bag of broken bats and a pop-up toaster signed by Dick MacAuliffe.

    It would be prosaic to report that the fabled undertaker had “dug his own grave,” but in reality he was just tossing dirt on the team’s coffin with the rest of the lackluster assembled talent….

    The NEXT year, however, 1980… brought NEW ownership…. and HOPE!!!…and nine guys playing third,,, and if you were to believe Madison Avenue, as I always did, and you were a Mets Fan, well…THE MAGIC (WAS) BACK!!!!

    postscript to the postscript: 95 losses.

    and no Richie Henber, either.

    Ah, Richie. We’re still trying to figure it all out…


  18. 18.  Psychsound – “In my own mind’s eye, to this day there is nothing as menacing as the high school parking lot Richie Hebners. Where I went to high school, they played handball against the high school. What are they doing with themselves these days?”

    They are working at Oil Changers, or Quik-E-Lube, or the automotive section of the local Wal-Mart, or some other such place. They have beer bellies, smoke cigars, wear torn wife-beaters, and raise kids that are the terrors of their high school parking lots, or are the sexually complicit cigarette-smoking girlfriends of said terrors. That’s what they are doing with themselves these days.


  19. Back in 1992, my wife sent me to Pirates Dream Week, Frank “the Original” Thomas and Kent Tekulve were my coaches. I pitched and played shortstop. But my drinking buddy was Richie Hebner. I spent time drinking, while he spent time doing pranks, he almost got me and some other campers kicked out of the Bradenton Hotel.
    I can remember the Major League popups that he hit with a fungo. They seemed to travel in outer space. Hebner got kicks out of seeing us helpless infielders dance in circles with no hope of ever catching one, but with a genuine fear of being hit!
    RH is one fo the few individuals that could use the f-bomb as a verb, noun, adjective and adverb and any other for of grammar.
    When I told him that he pissed me off when he swung widely at a ball in the dirt to strike out, ending the 1974 NL playoffs, he said”…we were losing 11-3, what the Fu*%!


  20. Did not Hebner have this weird thing with his cleats? They had holes in the toes — allegedly for “ventilation”?



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