Carl Morton

February 26, 2008


(continued from Bo Diaz)

Chapter Five

We drift down a spiraling river of television static. It feels vaguely familiar. Richie Hebner stopped paddling a while ago. He’s just been sitting there, staring straight ahead. 

I’m ready to go back now, I try to tell him. All I make is a tuneless humming noise, the throat-sound of a mute. Richie Hebner mimics the sound. He does it a few times. He builds the mocking repetitions into a simple melody. He starts tapping a rhythm on the raft as he hums. He adds words to the melody, singing, his voice reedy, barely audible above the sound of the static.

Well, I told the undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For the body you are carrying
Lord I hate to see her go    

He stops drumming on the raft. We drift for a while. The curves in the river are getting tighter, as if the spiral is approaching a point.

How do we get back? I try to say.

“Mm mm mm mm hmm,” Richie Hebner says, aping my throat sounds, then repeating them with a hint of the melody of the song he’d been singing. The river bends and the raft bumps into the river’s edge. We spin toward the middle, rotating slowly. Richie Hebner sings some more, his voice as flat as his gaze.

O will the circle be unbroken
By and by lord by and by
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky lord in the sky

Our spinning slows to a stop and I see that the river has drained into a circular pool. We’re floating in the middle of it. Images flicker on the surface of the television static below us, faces appearing and vanishing so quickly they seem to be in the middle of howling.

What’s it going to take? I try to say to Richie Hebner. What do I have to do to get out of here? Click my heels and say there’s no place like home?

The static gives way altogether, as if a lost signal had suddenly returned, and the ground below us solidifies into chunks of frozen dirt. Our raft is gone. We’re sitting on top of a freshly dug grave. The sky is like predawn, overcast, the color of static.

There’s no place like home, I try to say. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

None of it comes out. It just bangs around inside my chest and throat, where it sounds less like the incantatory affirmation Dorothy chanted to get back where she belonged and more like a negation, the zero at the end of the equation of life. You’re born, you drift, you feed the worms. There’s no place like home.

At the rim of the wide circular grave is a red, hard-rubber running track with lanes marked by white stripes, a perfectly circular, perfectly empty version of the crowded oval I used to run on when I lived in Brooklyn during my early thirties. I used to go around and around, weaving through clumps of kerchiefed Ukrainian crones and chunks of concrete and Dominican homeboys and unleashed pit bulls and broken bottles and bespectacled white women pushing expensive jogging strollers and soccer balls bounding free from the dusty game roiling on the inside of the track and drunk guys gesticulating and arguing with phantoms. Round and round I went, feeling even at the time as if I was enacting some audienceless, and therefore meaningless, Sisyphean metaphor. The years went by. Round and round I went. I was waiting for something to grab me, to say that my life had begun. Round and round and round. Finally I decided to leave. Near my last day I went running at the track and my friend Pete came with me and smoked cigarettes on a stone bench, and each time I ran by he yelled at me with a thick, bogus accent, his version of an Eastern European track coach.  

“Rahn! Make strong! Only strong survive! Rahn!”

Within a week or so I had traded the oval track for some suburban streets in Racine, Wisconsin, where my girlfriend’s family lived. Our plan was to stay there until we found jobs in Chicago. Round and round I went, making a circle of the strange, quiet streets.

“You think you know baseball,” Richie Hebner says now. He hasn’t used his one-hitter in a while and I can barely see him. It’s as if he’s fading into the dim pre-dawn light.

“You think you know it as well as anything. You’ve hid in it, taken refuge in it. As you’ve drifted you’ve tried to make it into something like home.”

I can’t even see you, I try to say.  

“But you don’t know who the National League rookie of the year was in 1970, I bet.”

Bernie Carbo? I try to say. I’ve always hoped that my grasp of useless baseball arcana will someday come in handy, will perhaps free me from a troublesome situation. Maybe this is the moment. But I can feel even as I say my answer that it’s off, wrong, and won’t deliver me.

“Carl Morton,” Richie Hebner says. I can just barely glimpse him pointing his shovel at someone running on the previously empty circle, a pale guy with red hair and a mustache.

“Best rookie of 1970, a pitcher. Looked like it was going to be his decade. He did OK for a while, never as good as that rookie year, then in 1976 he lost it, and fast. One bad year and he was done.”

Carl Morton plods around the track. Where is he going? Around and around.

“Few years later, he’s 39, goes for a run,” Richie Hebner says. “Same age you are now, am I right?”

I stare straight ahead.

“Yeah, same age as you are now. Goes for a run. Sets off from his parents’ house, makes the whole circle. Goes and returns. The hero’s journey. Drops in his parents’ driveway.”

I want to go back now, I try to say. I want to live.

Richie Hebner mocks the sounds that come out of me. Carl Morton circles. Around and around and around and nowhere. The mocking does not disappear altogether as Richie Hebner steers his mimicry one more time into song.

O will the circle be unbroken
By and by lord by and by
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky lord in the sky

(to be continued)


  1. 1.  I used to jog around my neighborhood in North Hollywood. I haven’t jogged the neighborhood in over 2 years now. There was something about jogging the neighborhood and seeing all those folks everyday. I miss those times and those people. Great description of jogging that track in NYC! It brought me back for a minute.

  2. 2.  I wasn’t going to read your series until you finished but I couldn’t wait any longer. If I had known the subject I might have passed. It is incredible writing, but man I’m depressed.

    The older you get the more death stalks you. It isn’t you, it is everyone you know. The grandparents have been gone forever, and now the parents are just waiting their turn. Actors, sports celebrities, aunts, uncles, friends. It never ends after you turn 45.

    The worse part are the simple accidents where seconds are the difference between someone still having a family or an empty nest with no future.

    A good friend of my wife’s lost their beautiful and only daughter one day when a car flipped over on top of her coming from the other direction. If mom had asked her one more question or had not asked the last question before she left, she would have missed the accident. How do people deal with shit like that?

  3. 3.  2 It’s a lame response, but what we almost never know is when that extra or unasked question kept someone out of situation like that. It’s not consolation for the grieving, but there are countless variables in play for every moment of life that it is unfair to oneself to focus in on one. What if the on-ramp meter hadn’t been on? What if she had stopped for that light instead of fudging through on the yellow/red? What if she hadn’t had to wait for four cars at that stop sign? What if she hadn’t waved the pedestrian to go ahead and cross in front of her?

    My wife and I have one child, our 18-year old daughter. I’d imagine I’d be in no mood for rational thinking if she were to be prematurely wrenched from our lives. Surely I’d ask, “how do we deal with shit like this?” and any response involving “countless variables” would get the cold, hard stare it earned.

  4. 4.  2 As Murakami writes in his great short story, A Perfect Day For Kangaroos, “that’s life.” It is simplistic, but true. To start looking at all the complex variables in life is to set ourselves up for going crazy. It is awful to lose someone to death, and i don’t think things can ever be rationalized for it. To do so would be to blame yourself, and that is where is gets dangerous and maybe insane. The only reasonable thing to say to someone before they leave is “please be careful and pay attention to your surroundings.” I tell this to my girlfriend all the time and to other loved ones. I feel that if we at least train ourselves to do that, we can at least partially combat unfortunate incidents. That is a profound question you ask man.
    I don’t think Josh is necessarily being morbid or depressing, but maybe just contemplative that here is this thing ahead of everyone of us, and no matter what, everyone has to deal with it. Some way or another, ya know.
    Thoughts like this make me want to rectify situations with old cohorts where we are no longer on talking terms over bullshit things. I have thought often lately of some people in my life that if one of us is suddenly gone, I want it to be on good terms. I guess try and find something positive about the issue, even if seems impossible. Now. I leave for the night, so I will wish myself “to be careful and pay attention to my surroundings,” and hope that it works.

  5. 5.  I was jogging just last night in Williamsburg myself — a habit I’m trying to take up to chase my own fears of death. They’ve built enormous new condos overlooking that track, you might not recognize the place today.

    I rarely if ever run on that track though. Last night I ran Kent St, then onto the Williamsburg Bridge at Driggs. Around halfway across I saw where they’d opened up a walk from the north sidewalk to the south sidewalk, but it was in deep shadow. I stepped and for a split-second did not know whether there’d be pavement just underfoot, or the East River hundreds of feet below. I ran home wondering whether they’d classify me a suicide or just an accident.

  6. 6.  I was wondering what the hell Danny Frisella had to do with this serial. “He must be dead?” I thought. Sure enough. Dune buggy accident.

    I’m sure that I heard Morton’s name before, but for the life of me, I can’t recall him; and I was conscious of baseball by the end of his career. Did the Braves not appear on Game of the Week in ’75 or ’76?

  7. 7.  6 : So I guess I’m not the only one to be a little shocked that Carl Morton was the 1970 NL ROY. The weird thing about his obscurity is that he wasn’t a Joe Charboneau one-year wonder (maybe he’d be better remembered if he was) but actually racked up double figure victories three or four times after his excellent rookie campaign. In fact, he’d been increasing his win total for four years in a row just prior to the melancholy card shown here and must have seemed on the brink of entering the kind of all-star caliber prime his rookie season suggested he’d one day enjoy. But instead he faded instantly, just when I was starting to really pay attention.

  8. 8.  Josh, I think the only more obscure RoY is John Castino, but wait until the Listach Generation forgets about Pat. Poor guy (Morton) looks like Richie Cunninghan gone to seed.

    Do any of you guys know about getting some at the office? I think that I’ve fallen hard for our receptionist. So this is actually a case of trying to establish a relationship. Not that I think that I coud get away with a fuck and forget mission without repercussions.

  9. 9.  Josh – Just a FYI but I don’t think the link “to be continued” at the bottom of the Steve Garvey Vietnam piece is working. Maybe Bill Campbell didn’t want to be linked to Gov Garv.

  10. 10.  9 : Mucho thanks, ToyCannon. I think I fixed it.

    Great job with your latest piece in TrueBlue LA. (And thanks a lot for mentioning Cardboard Gods in it.)

  11. 11.  You inspired it. Can’t tell you how much I love your stuff.

  12. 12.  He hit more career dingers than Greg Gross!

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