(continued from Carl Morton)
My eyes are shut tight and my hands are pressed against my ears, but Richie Hebner’s singing continues to seep in.
Shut up, shut up, shut up, I try to say.
He stops. I keep my eyes shut. I don’t want to know. Richie Hebner starts thumping a slow rhythm on the ground with what must be the butt of his shovel. He resumes singing, now in a laryngitis rasp that drags behind the slow shovel-thump.
What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies
We’re all gonna be in the same place when we die
Your spirit don’t leave knowing your face or your name
And the wind through your bones is all that remains
The Tom Waits impression makes him cough. The cough turns into a gravelly chuckle.
I can’t take it anymore, I try to shout. Like all the other words, these stay trapped inside me. All that comes out is a cornered animal whine, like a trapped cat. Richie Hebner starts rasping the chorus.
And we’re all gonna be
I said we’re all gonna be–
I open my eyes and lung toward the sound of the singing. I tackle dirt, Richie Hebner gone, his song a crumbling echo in my ears. I gasp from drilling my body into the ground and the ground is wobbling. More than wobbling. Things are always more fragile than you think. The ground is pitching and yawing like a swatted frisbee.
I grab at the ground but just slide back and forth with dirt clumps in my fists. Finally I grab something that doesn’t give. The handle of Richie Hebner’s shovel. It’s buried in the dirt. I hold on with both arms and look around. The circular track is gone. I’m at the bottom of a shallow, contoured, circular pit that seems to be plunging and darting through space. Except for the circle of dirt immediately encompassing me the wobbling, yawing disc is the color of lemonade, faintly glowing. It teeters and reels, a glow-in-the dark frisbee, the cheap kind, upside-down and plummeting.
The only sound is that of an animal whine, the same sound I made just before lunging at Richie Hebner, but the sound isn’t coming from me. Out along the rim of the disc, where Carl Morton was circling, there’s a small white and orange cat, hunched up and clinging to the edge. She’s making the sound. I realize who the cat is at the same time that I understand I’m the one that caused her current suffering. Things were fine, were peaceful, before I started blundering around the underworld.
It’s OK, Wortel, I try to say, but I just add my own whine to the cat’s. She’s looking around, trying to find something to hide under, but there’s nothing, so she huddles up against the lip of the upturned spastic disc.
For the first few years of her life she was not a pet. She was born in Holland, and for a long time she lived in a warehouse, a working cat, kept around not for affection and companionship but to catch mice. When her services were no longer needed an American family that had just relocated to Holland adopted her, but it seemed at first that she had lived away from human touch too long. She didn’t want anyone to touch her and spent all her time hiding under a bed in the family’s guest room. But the teenage daughter in the family wasn’t willing to accept this. Every day when she got home from school she climbed under the bed and dragged Wortel out. Wortel didn’t like it. She made that whining sound, and as soon as the girl let her go she darted back under the bed. But the teenage girl was stubborn about things like this. Every day the same thing. Drag the cat out, talk to her, pet her, show her love. It went on and on, the animal whine, scratches all over the arms. The girl held on. She was stubborn with love. And one day she came home from school and Wortel crawled out from under the bed to meet her.
The frisbee is cutting jagged spirals through bottomless static-gray sky. It’s already hard to hold on to the handle of the buried shovel and now the shovel is beginning to sink farther into the ground, as if someone is yanking on the other end. Then the frisbee flips. I’m still hanging into the shovel, my legs dangling down, nothing but static below. I can’t hear Wortel whining anymore. The shovel is still sinking up into the circle of earth above me. I hold on. I don’t want to fall into nothing. I hold on. The shovel pulls me up and into the earth.
The earth I’m pulled up through is dark and thick, not just with soil and rocks. I can hear Richie Hebner rasping.
Hell’s boiling over
Heaven is full
We’re chained to the world
And we all gotta pull
The earth I’m being pulled up through is clogged with bodies. I’m being dragged up through bodies. It’s too dark to see them and I have to keep shutting my eyes to keep the dirt from flooding my sockets. I can’t breathe. The shovel pierces the surface above me and gray light comes in, illuminating the body closest to the top, a corpse in the uniform of my favorite team. The corpse has no head. I’m so close as I pass that my body and the corpse touch, the corpse flipping from the side that says Red Sox to the side that has the number 9. The last words of Richie Hebner’s song rattle in my ears.
. . . just dirt in the ground
And I’m standing in the gray light, in the backyard of a house in Racine, Wisconsin. I hold a shovel in my hands, the blade of it touching the freshly dug dirt at my feet. It’s 2003, the year my girlfriend and I left New York City. The year before, contemplating a move, we took a long road trip, traveling from baseball stadium to baseball stadium. We were at the stadium in Pittsburgh when a pregame announcement was made that Ted Williams had died. Some time later the news surfaced that Ted Williams’ head had been removed from his body and was being frozen in hopes that someday a cure for death could be found, at which point he would be thawed out, revived, and reunited with his loved ones.
It’s 2003, and I’m back above ground, and a cure for death has still not been found, and so I’m in the backyard of a house in Racine, Wisconsin. I’m standing beside my girlfriend, Abby, who was the one who brought Wortel into the world of human love by dragging her out from under the guest bed every day. Her mother and sister are here too. Earlier that day a neighbor had found Wortel on the side of the street. We went and gathered her in a black garbage bag. Abby’s father is away on business, so I did the digging and the filling in after we laid her down. The shovel’s in my hands. We form a circle around the grave.
It’s 2008. No shovel. No Richie Hebner. Ted Williams still a dead frozen head somewhere in Arizona. I was born on this day exactly forty years ago. Can’t fucking believe it.
I’ve got my little life, my routines, my ways of passing the time. I make a living, carve out some time to write, go on long walks, follow baseball, once in a while go out and have a few beers with my wife, occasionally lie awake thinking about the terrifying implications of a notion perhaps best expressed by the Dead song “Box of Rain”: “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” When you’re dead, there goes everything, and forever. Down you go into the pit, into Sheol.
“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love,” an old blues singer once said, “all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes, 9.9-10)
Sometimes I think back to 2003, those months when Abby and I stayed with her parents in Racine. We were in between worlds, no longer in New York City and not yet in Chicago. In reality it was a somewhat edgy time, both of us looking for a job, wondering if we could actually pull off a move to a whole new city, but in my memory those months stand as something like an extended train ride, one of those long moments when nothing is of any real consequence, and so time seems suspended, and so death seems far off.
I went on runs, circling the streets. I went on drives, making wider circles. Sometimes I went to an amusement center with some golf clubs borrowed from Abby’s dad and I bought a bucket of balls and sent them one by one out into a dry field. Once in a while I hit a ball just right, my swing by accident as close to perfection as I’ll ever get, a faint echo of the perfection in the baseball swing of The Immortal, Ted Williams, that swing that held nothing extra yet held the whole brief graceful comet flash of life, dawn to dusk, dust to dust, each life one clean motion, one blazing song.