Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Easy Heat

 With the wind howling in his face, Ike Rehn ran as hard as he could toward the edge of the cliff.  His strides were almost as long as his arms.  He felt like a kid again running on the beach with a kite.  Just as then, he ran as if he were being chased, his heart pounding so hard he could barely hear the wind.  In another moment, he was soaring through the air, the red-and-gold sail of his hang glider swelling in the brisk east wind.  Like a giant moth he circled above the meadow beneath the cliff, a chiclet-bright smile spreading across his face.  Tightly he gripped the control bar as he maneuvered to find a rising current of air known as a thermal.  As usual, the straps of the harness dug sharply into his shoulder blades but he didn’t mind because there was nothing he enjoyed doing more than piloting his glider.  Up in the air he was relaxed, in control, completely confident of his skills as a pilot.
     Cackling with excitement, he swooped low over a cedar tree, nearly clipping one of the limbs, and soared back toward the sun, cackling even louder.
     Rehn held the shot glass up to the overhead light to make sure it was clean then, satisfied that it was, placed it on a shelf behind the counter and began to clean another one.  A bartender, he had worked at the Wichita Bar and Grill almost five months but it seemed longer so he figured it was about time to move on and find work elsewhere.  He didn’t intend to leave the area, though, because the wind conditions were nearly always ideal for hang gliding.
     “Slow night,” Cassie, a new server, complained as she watched him clean another glass.
     “Wednesdays are always slow.”
     She frowned.  “Tonight seems slower than usual, though.”
     “It’ll pick up.”
     “God, I hope so,” she sighed.  “I need the tips.”
     “Don’t we all.”
     The bar was owned by a widower, Abe Calhoun, who lived around the corner but seldom came into his establishment when it was open for business because, as a recovering alcoholic, he didn’t want to be tempted by others to have a drink.  About the only time Rehn saw him was when he picked up his check every other week before he started work.  He was a pretty gruff character, still mourning the unexpected death of his wife a few months ago, so the less contact Rehn had with him the better he reckoned.  He was always worried he would say the wrong thing then have to listen to one of his harangues for four or five minutes as if he were still a schoolboy.
     Around a quarter to ten several people came into the bar after viewing the first showing of North by Northwest at the revival theater down the street.  Rehn recognized them all because they were pretty regular patrons and, for the moist part, was able to make their drinks before they ordered them.
     “I understand you had some trouble the other night,” Quinney, a mail carrier, remarked after Rehn served him an Irish coffee.
     He shrugged.  “Nothing that got out of hand, really.  Some guy I’ve never seen in here before complained that I watered down his drink and refused to pay for it.”
     Quinney glanced at the young woman he was with tonight.  “I heard you brought out the old Louisville Slugger.”
     “Yeah, I let him have a peek.”
     “That was enough, was it?”
     He nodded.  “He paid, reluctantly, still convinced his drink was diluted.”
     “Some of the other folks who’ve tended bar here would not hesitate to whack a troublemaker across the arm or shoulders with the bat that Calhoun keeps behind the counter but not Ike,” he told his date.  “More than likely, he’ll try to dazzle them with one of his tricks.  Isn’t that so, son?”
     Rehn grinned.  “If I can avoid violence, I will every time.”
     “Ike, see, is a ball player not a fighter,” he continued, nudging a little closer to the young woman.  “He was almost signed by the Pirates right out of high school.”
     “Well, I had a try-out with them,” he explained to the woman, “along with a dozen other prospects.”
     “That’s impressive enough for me, son.  I couldn’t hit a thing the one year I played Little League.  Not a blessed thing.”
     “It’s a hard game.  No question about it.”
     “But the things you can do with a bat I bet are as good as anything anyone in the big leagues can do.”
     “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
     “Why don’t you show Patsy here something and let her be the judge?”
      “Please do,” she said at once, sounding as if she meant it.
     “Maybe later,” he replied as Cassie passed him another order slip, “when it’s not so busy.”
     Quinney smiled at his date.  “Believe me, it’ll be worth the wait.  Ike is a goddamn magician.”
     Rehn’s father, unlike him, was a professional baseball player who spent two and a half seasons in Triple A ball before a severely torn kneecap forced him to leave the game and abandon his dream of one day playing in the Major Leagues.  A pitcher, who threw what one coach called “easy heat” because his fastball was delivered with such a relaxed wind-up, he was also a very good hitter.  Indeed, he was the real artist with a bat who taught him many of the tricks he learned first to amuse teammates during rain delays.  One of the earliest he remembered his father doing involved a fungo bat.  Occasionally, while hitting fly balls to him, he would hit a ball so high above his own head he had time to drop the bat and slip on a glove and catch the ball before it touched the ground.  Rarely did he miss, and when he did he invariably blamed it on the sun getting in his eyes even when the sky was gray as a battleship.
     About midnight, at Quinney’s insistence, Rehn got out the chipped bat and performed a few tricks for him and his date and the three other patrons still in the bar.  Carefully he balanced the 34 ounce Slugger on his elbow then his forehead and the tip of his nose.  Then he planted the head of the bat on the floor and balanced himself on it for a good minute.  He finished with the swinging bat trick which, by far, was the most difficult stunt in his repertoire.  With an empty pretzel basket serving as home plate, he assumed his stance above it then swung the bat until the head was directly in front of his body, spun the handle back, and let the bat spin free for one complete revolution then caught the handle again and completed his swing.
     Quinney immediately burst into applause, as did the others, and Rehn smiled in appreciation.
     “Didn’t I tell you he was a magician?” Quinney said to his date while he continued to applaud.
     Rehn smiled even more, always enjoying the enthusiastic reaction he received after performing some of his tricks.  Over the years more than a few people had urged him to look into making some money as a performer.  He appreciated the suggestion but knew that was impossible because he could not risk the publicity.  He had to remain anonymous otherwise he was afraid he would be arrested.
     “I told my boyfriend about those tricks you did last night and he said he’d like to see them,” Cassie told Rehn shortly after she reported to work.
     “Well, I can’t do them every night because I’d get bored but let me know the next time he’s going to come in and I’ll show him a couple.”
     “I’ll do that.”
     Nodding, he split a pretzel in half and offered her one of the halves.
     “You know that guy last night might be right when he said you could earn a nice chunk of change by performing your tricks right out here on the corner.”
     He shrugged.  “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
     “You should think about it, Ike.  Everybody can always use some extra money in their pockets.”
     Ever since he was a small boy, swinging at pitches thrown by his father in the backyard, he always figured he would earn some money swinging a baseball bat but never imagined it might be as a street entertainer.  He was bitterly disappointed when he wasn’t signed by the Pirates, especially after the strong slugging percentage he posted in the playoffs his senior year.  His father, as always, was full of encouragement but probably for the first time he considered that he might not be as good a player as his father was and began to wonder if he ever would receive a contract to play baseball.  Still, he enrolled in a small community college downstate and played on its ball club but didn’t hit much above his weight and suspected he was only kept on the roster because his tricks amused the coaches and his teammates.
     After he completed his eligibility at the college, he never played an organized game of baseball again, only pick-up games in the park and the occasional game of stick ball.  Instead, becoming involved with some former students who still hung around the college, he started experimenting with drugs.  And before long he was snorting lines of cocaine through milk straws and doing whatever he could to get money to buy more of the hideous powder.  Though he had a part-time job as a cashier in a convenience store, he also cut lawns and washed cars, sold pints of blood at the Red Cross Center, even occasionally shoplifted watches and rings and necklaces that he swapped for cash at pawnshops.  But he never seemed to have enough money until Bergman, one of the former students he snorted cocaine with, enlisted his help in torching a cement factory so the owner, who was Bergman’s uncle, could collect the insurance money.  He was offered $3,500, and though he knew it was as wrong as wrong could be, he couldn’t resist and made the worst mistake of his young life.  The day after the blaze he left town, telling his parents he was going to Las Vegas to visit an old teammate who played for the ball club there, and never returned because of his fear of being arrested.
     That was close to two years ago, though it seemed twice as long.
     Breathing hard, Rehn limped out of the lake and collapsed on the striped bath towel he left on the beach.  He had swum nearly half an hour in the bracing water and his arms and shoulders felt as heavy as fence posts.  He stared at the sun for a moment then at the silvery white waterfall beneath it.  Above the waterfall were several young boys waiting their turn to leap off it some twenty feet into the lake.  Each time one of them did the others cheered excitedly.  He smiled, tempted to join them, but figured he was a little too old and would not be welcomed.  So he just watched until his eyes grew heavy and he nodded off to sleep.
     A few minutes later, he was startled awake by a fierce scream and immediately looked up at the waterfall but no one was above it then he heard another scream and turned to his right and saw a pudgy woman in a purple muumuu pointing toward the water.  He assumed someone must be in trouble and got up to help then thought better of it and waited to see if anyone else was going in and saw two wiry guys charge across the sand and plunge into the water.  Not budging from his towel, he watched them approach a struggling boy from behind and seize his shoulders and haul him back to shore.  Relieved, he sat down on his towel, bitterly reprimanding himself for not helping the boy.  If those two guys hadn’t responded, he wondered if he would have helped then.  He hoped so but he wasn’t really sure because of the publicity that might ensue if he rescued someone.  The last thing in the world he wanted to happen was get his picture in the newspaper.
     He was so ashamed, so embarrassed, to think that he could have let a young boy drown in order to protect his identity.  It was pathetic, utterly pathetic.  He was paralyzed by the constant fear that the slightest attention that came his way might result in his immediate arrest.  Others involved in the burning of the abandoned cement factory had been arrested and he would not be surprised if they had implicated him in an effort to strike a deal with the prosecutor’s office.  Lord, he hated what he had become, he thought, as he stared at the waterfall in the twilight.  He had changed his name so often he couldn’t always remember which one he was using and sometimes didn’t respond when others addressed him.
     The next afternoon, walking through a park on his way to work, Rehn paused to watch half a dozen boys play “Over the Line” on one of the scabby softball diamonds.  They were about the age of the youngster who almost drowned yesterday in the lake, he thought, standing against the backstop.  He and his father and two or three boys in the neighborhood often played the informal game when they didn’t have enough players to play an actual game.
     “You mind if I take a couple of cuts?” he asked after he watched for a while.
     The boy at the plate turned around and looked at him, not sure what to say, looked out at the pitcher then looked back at him.  “All right, if you want to.”
     Quickly he stepped around the rusted screen and took the bat from the still puzzled boy.  It was so light it felt like a wand in his massive hands.  Smiling, he flicked it back and forth a moment then took his place in the batter’s box and nodded at the pitcher to throw the ball.  He swung hard but barely managed to make contact and hit a bleeder back toward the mound and the pitcher smiled in amusement.  He crushed the next pitch, though, dissolving the smirk from the pitcher’s round face, and was so pleased he burst into a huge grin.  He lined the next pitch past the shortstop then another one past him then crushed one over the head of the outfielder.
     He felt good about his effort, as good as he had in quite a while, but he always felt better whenever he had a chance to play ball.  Somehow he wished he could always feel as comfortable and sure of himself.
     “You sure you want to go through with this, Ike?” Craven, another paraglider, asked as he stood behind Rehn on the narrow balcony on top of the Heritage Column---the tallest structure in town.
     “I couldn’t be more sure.”
     “You’ve got a gusting east wind that should be just about perfect for gliding today.”
     He nodded, making sure the straps of his harness were secure.
     “You know you’re taking a hell of a risk doing this,” Craven reminded him, “and I’m not just talking about flying your glider, either.”
     “I know that.”
     “You’re absolutely sure now?”
     “I am.”
     “All right, then, whenever you’re ready.”
     He knew it was dangerous to launch his glider from the Column, knew as well that it was against the law.  He didn’t care, though, as he edged farther out on the balcony.  He deserved to be arrested for his refusal to help the boy at the lake, and if he was, he hoped his picture was put on the front page of the morning paper.
     A moment passed, then another, then he was off, rising higher and higher in the core of a strong thermal, the sun burning in his eyes.

T.R. Healy

T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, his stories have appeared in such publications as Camel Saloon, Ozone Park Journal, and Steel Toe

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