It’s August 1995, and Billy says the Mick is as good as dead. My brother counts one, two, three on his fingers: “First they give him a new liver. Then the cancer they missed eats up his lung. Then he dies.”
“Maybe not, Billy,” I say.
I see the Mick’s cancer as little bubbles filled with blood and mucus drifting upward in leisurely patterns, getting temporarily trapped in the narrow channel of his right lung. I see the Mick in his pin stripes and batting helmet, opening his mouth wide and coughing once, and the cancer bubbles floating out of his mouth, stretching and popping as they head for the stratosphere.
The Mick looked pretty bad when he made the announcement about his lung cancer. The New York Times said that doctors had found several lumps the size of peas in his lung. That was funny, because peas was the same word the doctors used for Mother’s tumors. And all in the same place, they said; she’s a lucky woman. Mother was sick for two years before she died. After that, we left New York.
Father had her body shipped to Burlington, Vermont, where we live now. In New York, Father crewed on an oil barge that ran up and down the Hudson, keeping him away three weeks out of the month. Here, he has a captain’s license and runs a ferry across Lake Champlain, between Burlington and Port Kent. Once in a while I help out, waving cars onto the deck. They come from New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Canada to visit the Green Mountains and the lake. When we pull away from Burlington, the oil tanks, railroad station, parking garage, water tower, and Holiday Inn shrink out of view. At some point I erase them completely and pretend I’m a pioneer seeing the sandy shores, green hills, and mountains for the first time and wondering if this would make a good place to live.
Billy and I got jobs when we moved to Vermont. He went to work in a cigarette warehouse and got into some real trouble, for which he may be sent to jail. I got a summer job washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. It’s been a hot summer, and every night I’ve had to eat salt tablets to keep going. I don’t mind. I like to sweat. It’s an easy job until 9:30, when they bring over the big pots with beef, beans, and sauce burned in black patches on the bottoms. I’m slowly ruining all the pots. I’m supposed to scrub them out with steel wool, but I use a butter knife, which leaves shiny scars on the bottoms. I like seeing the scars and knowing that I was the one who put them there.
Yesterday, the president came to Burlington and I didn’t even know it until I rode my bike downtown. They’d cordoned off Church Street by running yellow police tape along the tops of the parking meters. There was a big crowd behind the tape and the only way I could get by was to ride down the empty street. I made it exactly one block before a state trooper yelled at me to get off the street.
“Yes, sir,” I said and got right off the bike so he would see I was harmless.
When I saw the president, I was holding on to my bicycle in the middle of the crowd. He was crossing Church Street, wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, eating a Ben and Jerry’s chocolate ice-cream cone. Before he ate the ice cream, he’d had lunch in our most popular diner, where he’d ordered a turkey sandwich, a Coca-Cola, and potato salad. He’d eaten everything, the newspaper said, as if that were a big compliment for our city.
I didn’t feel anything much when I saw him crossing the street with the ice-cream cone. Everyone was applauding as if he were the grand finale of some big act, but I was somewhat disappointed. I thought I’d be knocked over by seeing him. I thought it would be the same kind of rush I got watching old black-and-white clips of the Mick depositing one into the right-field upper deck at Yankee Stadium and limping around the bases. But nothing happened. I ended up trying to imagine who I would think he was if he were just somebody crossing the street eating ice cream — a real-estate agent, maybe.
Then again, I can imagine telling my children about seeing the president and how it might sound like something special to them, especially after he’s dead. “I saw him crossing the street and eating an ice-cream cone,” I’ll say. “I was only ten yards away and could see him sweating.” I can imagine where they might think it was a big deal.
The most exciting thing about the president coming to Burlington was the Secret Service men. They wore sunglasses and were everywhere and looked just like Secret Service men. I watched them as much as possible, and not once did I catch any of them smiling. They were on the sidewalks, in the shop doorways, along the roofs with binoculars, and in a helicopter dancing back and forth above us, sounding somewhat frantic. I couldn’t imagine them being anything except Secret Service men. I couldn’t even imagine them eating or sleeping. They watched the crowd carefully, and I wondered just what it was they were on the lookout for; what would tip them off that one of us was an assassin?
When I got home, I told Billy I’d seen the president.
He was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a soda and reading the newspaper. “Big deal,” he said. He didn’t even look up.
Billy says that not only is the Mick as good as dead, but so is the game of baseball. It seems he is somewhat right. No one goes to the games anymore. But I don’t see what’s so different about the game. I’d go if I still lived in New York. The Yankees traded for David Cone, and now everyone thinks they’ve bought themselves another pennant. I hope so. The New York Post calls Cone a mercenary who sells his talents to the highest bidder. They say there is no loyalty left in the game of baseball and the feud between the striking players and owners has turned the fans off for good. I say in order to turn the fans off for good you would have to shoot them. When I saw Cone on television pitching against the Twins and striking them out whenever they tried to rally, I got chills. I could be watching the next Yankee legend, I thought; Billy ought to see this.
Billy got arrested about two months ago, and tomorrow he gets sentenced. They got his boss first, and now they’re going to get him. Billy calls himself “small fish,” which means he won’t get nearly the sentence his boss got. There’s a tax on cigarettes in Vermont, and the way they tax the distributors is to make them stamp each package of cigarettes with a red seal. They use a meter to stamp the cigarettes, and it registers each package stamped. The distributor then has to pay tax according to the numbers registered on the meter. Billy and his boss made a lot of money by using a counterfeit meter and pocketing the tax money they saved. It’s too bad they got caught.
Before we lived in New York City, we lived in Troy, New York. Mother worked at the Third Street Funeral Home, three doors down from our apartment. After supper Mother used to play the piano, and it sounded as if she were providing background music for the funeral home. Before she began playing, you’d hear a jumble of noises: traffic and sirens passing below; the hum of our air conditioner; the peanut hawker in the park shouting at the pigeons to go away. But once she began playing, all the sounds shrank and met and sounded as if they were part of the music. Even the peanut hawker’s voice sounded somewhat tragic.
Sometimes she’d play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. She told me he composed it while his son was dying of pneumonia. I can believe it. There is a lot of death in that music, and my only complaint about it, then and now, is that it’s too short. If it’s about your son dying, it ought to be longer and include some hope somewhere in the middle, so the letdown will be even more dramatic.
When Mother died, no one had expected it except me. Billy now says that he knew all along, but the truth is he and Father denied it right up until the end. They kept saying she was going to get better, and Billy used to come into her bedroom, open the shades, and tell her to get out of bed. “You can’t get better unless you want to,” he’d say.
“I want to,” she’d say. She wouldn’t look at Billy when she said it; she’d look at me.
I used to get embarrassed for Billy. I didn’t know how he and Father couldn’t see it. Before she died she was as white as snow, her face shriveled up in exactly the same way as the Mick’s when he made his announcement. It was as if there were thousands of little suction cups just beneath her skin, drawing her cheeks, mouth, and eyes inward. Three days before she died, a dog started howling out on the street. I don’t know where it came from. (This was when we lived in New York City and there weren’t any dogs in our neighborhood.) Right in the middle of the howling, she looked up from her pillows and said, “You know what that means.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said. “I know.”
She lay on her back and didn’t move or talk for a long time after that. I pulled the bedcovers off her feet and ran a hairbrush up and down her callused soles. She liked that. I knew I would think back on the hairbrush and the howling dog and be proud that I hadn’t denied her the way Billy had.
A week after she died, we were in Burlington and I tried to play Chopin’s prelude. There wasn’t much to it, but, just the same, I didn’t have the touch and it came out sounding somewhat cheerful, so I stopped right away before I ruined it.
When the president came to Burlington I stood behind the yellow tape watching different Secret Service men until I picked out one who made me think of a hyena. I don’t know why — maybe because his hair was gold and stuck up along the top, and I could see the tips of his front teeth. He had his hands clasped at the waist as if he were in church. His eyes swept over the crowd, and even through the sunglasses I could see his eyeballs shifting and locking, shifting and locking, like magnets. I wondered what he would do if our eyes met. So I stared at him.
I am tall and thin and somewhat nondescript in appearance. Billy tells me I can hire out as a scarecrow if I ever get tired of washing dishes. I smile at strangers and think of myself as a nonthreatening individual. When I met the Secret Service agent’s eyes, they swept right past me, and I thought that was that. Then his head swung around and his eyes came back to mine, as if the crowd were a blurry television picture that had suddenly come into focus. He took off his sunglasses. At first I was somewhat thrilled, as if I had the part of an assassin in a spy movie. But he just stared and stared until I had to turn away. When I looked back, he was still staring. It gave me a bad feeling, the feeling that if I made any sudden moves he would shoot me first and find out later I was only a dishwasher.
Right now I’m getting ready for the game: the Yankees will be playing the Cleveland Indians. I’m going to listen to the game in the kitchen. Billy’s bedroom is directly above. If the Yankees have a big inning, I’m going to turn up the volume and see if that brings him downstairs. Sometimes I prefer the radio to the television. I like to picture the ballplayers in my mind. Whenever the Yankees fall behind I shut off the radio and imagine them making a big comeback. Yesterday the Yankees beat the Indians 3-2. Jack McDowell was on the mound and, with the Red Sox in first place, it was a big win. Billy hates Jack McDowell. There was a picture in the Daily News of McDowell walking off the field, giving the finger to the fans, who were booing him.
“You see?” Billy said. “There’s your blessed game. When’s the last time you saw the Mick giving someone the finger?”
I could’ve pointed out to Billy that the Mick might not have given anyone the finger, but he sure did a lot of drinking. But I don’t like arguing with Billy these days. What I hope for is this: I hope McDowell will pitch a no-hitter against the Red Sox and give the game ball to a handicapped boy in the stands. I hope the Mick’s tumors will shrink under chemotherapy and disappear, and he will throw out the first ball in the World Series. I hope the judge will have mercy on Billy — since he didn’t buy the counterfeit meter and only stamped with it for six months — and will let him off with a warning.
I knocked on Billy’s bedroom door last night. He was sitting on his bed with his suitcase already packed, as if he couldn’t wait to leave for jail. All I could see in the suitcase was white T-shirts and white socks.
“Don’t give up hope,” I said. “You know what Yogi Berra said about it not being over till it’s over. Maybe your lawyer can work out a deal before you get sentenced.”
“Sure,” Billy said. “And maybe jail bars are licorice and I can eat my way out.”
I guess Billy’s right about that. His lawyer’s already told him what’s going to happen: he’s going to get two years and serve them in the Lewisburg Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. I wonder what’s going to happen to him in there. I wonder what he’ll do to pass the time. Maybe they’ll get the games. But it’s Pennsylvania, so it’ll probably be the Pirates or the Phillies.
Sometimes I think I could’ve done something to stop Billy. I remember him jamming cartons of cigarettes into big boxes and carrying them out to the van, never smiling, as if he knew all along he was going to get caught and was waiting for it to happen. Sometimes I think I should’ve knocked the cigarettes out of his arms and told him to come home. “It’s not your fault Mother died,” I should’ve said.
I rode my bike all over Burlington this morning. The first place I went was out to the cemetery. I can’t carry flowers on the bike without breaking them, so when I got there I picked some dandelions and put them in the little metal pot they provide for each grave. It gave me a thrill to kneel on the ground and think of Mother just a few feet below. It was the kind of feeling I thought I would get from seeing the president, but didn’t. I didn’t get it with Mother when she was alive, either.
After I left the cemetery I rode downtown, and it was as if the president had never been there. Everything on Church Street was back to normal. There was a big sidewalk sale — merchandise all over the street. There were racks of clothing, candles, kitchen appliances, books, Christmas cards, wicker baskets — everything at half price. I walked my bike through the center of the marketplace and felt as if I’d grown old and had returned to a place I could barely remember. I felt homesick. I looked up at all the empty rooftops. It was hard to believe there had been Secret Service men up there the day before, watching us with binoculars.
I have just turned on the radio, and am feeling somewhat bad. They have made the announcement that Mickey Mantle is dead. He died last night, and now they are asking the fans at the stadium to observe a few moments of silence. I picture Yankee Stadium with forty or fifty thousand fans keeping perfectly quiet. All you can hear is the wind whistling around the rim of the stadium and the tips of the pennants snapping. The ballplayers are lined up in front of the first-base dugout: Mattingly, Boggs, O’Neal, Fernandez, Strawberry, and the rest. Their caps are pressed against their chests. Some of them lean forward and spit. Most just stare at their cleats.
“Billy,” I call, “you’d better come down here!”
But he doesn’t answer. Maybe he’s taking a nap. Or maybe he’s heard the radio and is pretending to be asleep. I remember how he used to collect videos showing the great Yankee teams. He memorized all the spots on the videos where the Mick hit home runs. “Here comes a sweet one, Brother,” he’d say. There would be a shot of the Mick in the batter’s box, swinging the bat back and forth, waiting for the pitch. Then I would be looking at the number 7 all twisted up on the back of the Mick’s jersey, the ball smacking into the upper deck and bouncing onto the field.
I wish Billy would come down from his bedroom. I wonder how much longer before the announcers come back on the air. The hissing of the radio makes me somewhat uneasy. It sounds as if they have just dropped a bomb and I am the only survivor.