2/02/2010

From "The Laughing Man"

One afternoon in February, just after Comanche baseball season had opened, I observed a new fixture in the Chief's bus. Above the rear-view mirror over the windshield, there was a small, framed photograph of a girl dressed in academic cap and gown. It seemed to me that a girl's picture clashed with the general men-only d├ęcor of the bus, and I bluntly asked the Chief who she was. He answered unforthrightly, "Mary Hudson." I asked him if she was in the movies or something. He said no, that she used to go to Wellesley College. He added, on some slow-processed afterthought, that Wellesley College was a very high-class college. I asked him what he had her picture in the bus for, though. He shrugged slightly, as much as to imply, it seemed to me, that the picture had more or less been planted on him.
During the next couple of weeks, the picture--however forcibly or accidentally it had been planted on the Chief--was not removed from the bus. It didn't go out with the Baby Ruth wrappers and the fallen licorice whips. However, we Comanches go used to it. It gradually took on the unarresting personality of a speedometer.
But one day as were on our way to the Park, the Chief pulled the bus over to a curb on Fifth Avenue in the Sixties, a good half mile past our baseball field. Some twenty back-seat drivers at once demanded an explanation, but the Chief gave none. Instead, he simply got into his story-telling position and swung prematurely into a fresh installment of "The Laughing Man." He had scarcely begun, however, when someone tapped on the bus door. The Chief's reflexes were geared high that day. He literally flung himself around in his seat, yanked the operating handle of the door, and a girl in a beaver coat climbed into the bus.
Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief's girl, Mary Hudson.
"Am I very late?" she asked the Chief, smiling at him.
She might just as well have asked if she was ugly.
"No!" the Chief said. A trifle wildly, he looked at the Comanches near his seat and signalled the row to give way. Mary Hudson sat down between me and a boy named Edgar something, whose uncle's best friend was a bootlegger. We gave her all the room in the world. Then the bus started off with a peculiar, amateur-like lurch. The Comanches, to the last man, were silent.
On the way back to our regular parking place, Mary Hudson leaned forward in her seat and gave the Chief an enthusiastic account of the trains she had missed and the train she hadn't missed; she lived in Douglaston, Long Island. The Chief was very nervous. He didn't just fail to contribute any talk of his own; he could hardly listen to hers. The gearshift knob came off in his hand, I remember.
When we got out of the bus, Mary Hudson stuck right with us. I'm sure that by the time we reached the baseball field there was on every Comanche's face a some-girls-just-don't-know-when-to-go-home look. And to really top things off, when another Comanche and I were flipping a coin to decide which team would take the field first, Mary Hudson wistfully expressed a desire to join the game. The response to this couldn't have been more clean-cut. Where before we Comanches had simply stared at her femaleness, we now glared at it. She smiled back at us. It was a shade disconcerting. Then the Chief took over, revealing what had formerly been a well-concealed flair for incompetence. he took Mary Hudson aside, just out of earshot of the Comanches, and seemed to address her solemnly, rationally. At length, Mary Hudson interrupted him, and her voice was perfectly audible to the Comanches. "But I do," she said. "I do, too, want to play!" The Chief nodded and tried again. He pointed in the direction of the infield, which was soggy and pitted. He picked up a regulation bat and demonstrated its weight. "I don't care," Mary Hudson said distinctly, "I came all the way to New York--to the dentist and everything--and I'm gonna play." The Chief nodded again but gave up. He walked cautiously over to home plate, where the Braves and the Warriors, the two Comanche teams, were waiting, and looked at me. I was captain of the Warriors. He mentioned the name of my regular center fielder, who was home sick, and suggested that Mary Hudson take his place. I said I didn't need a center fielder. The Chief asked me what the hell did I mean I didn't need a center fielder. I was shocked. It was the first time I had heard the Chief swear. What's more, I could feel Mary Hudson smiling at me. For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.
We took the field first. No business went out to center field the first inning. From my position on first base, I glanced behind me now and then. Each time I did, Mary Hudson waved gaily to me. She was wearing a catcher's mitt, her own adamant choice. It was a horrible sight.
Mary Hudson batted ninth on the Warriors' lineup. When I informed her of this arrangement, she made a little face and said, "Well hurry up, then." And as a matter of fact we did seem to hurry up. She got to bat in the first inning. She took off her beaver coat--and her catcher's mitt--for the occasion and advanced to the plate in a dark-brown dress. When I gave her a bat, she asked me why it was so heavy. The Chief left his umpire's position behind the pitcher and came forward anxiously. He told Mary Hudson to rest the end of her bat on her right shoulder. "I am," she said. He told her not to choke the bat too tightly. "I'm not," she said. He told her to keep her eye right on the ball. "I will," she said. "Get outa the way." She swung mightily at the first ball pitched to her and hit it over the left fielder's head. It was good for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it--standing up.
When my astonishment had worn off, and then my awe, and then my delight, I looked over at the Chief. He didn't so much seem to be standing behind the pitcher as floating over him. He was a completely happy man. Over on third base, Mary Hudson waved to me. I waved back. I couldn't have stopped myself, even if I'd wanted to. Her stickwork aside, she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base.
The rest of the game, she got on base every time she came to bat. For some reason, she seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her there. At least three times, she stole second.
Her fielding couldn't have been worse, but we were piling up too many runs to take serious notice of it. I think it would have improved if she'd gone after flies with almost anything except a catcher's mitt. She wouldn't take it off, though. She said it was cute.
The next month or so, she played baseball with the Comanches a couple of times a week (whenever she had an appointment with her dentist, apparently). Some afternoons she met the bus on time, some afternoons she was late. Sometimes she talked a blue streak in the bus, sometimes she just sat and smoked her Herbert Tareyton cigarettes (cork-tipped). When you sat next to her in the bus, she smelled of a wonderful perfume.


J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories is one of the best books you'll ever read. So read it.

Stuck in my head tonight: "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys. Perhaps the best love song ever written.

1 comment:

  1. my sister always thought the song wasn't nice because of the line:
    "i may not always love you"
    sometimes you have to keep listening people.

    ReplyDelete