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)