Ben Hawkins sat slumped over the bar - and the remains of his mostly-liquid "lunch." His eyes were closed, but he wasn't in danger of falling asleep (he hadn't drunk that much whiskey). He was just trying to visualize the ball game that was blaring on the radio.
"Jonesy lines a single to left!" the announcer shouted. "The Ageless One continues to deliver with his bat, as well as his pitching!"
Most of the Yankee fans in the tavern applauded. Ben contributed a mumbled "Yay."
He was mildly amused by his inability to picture the game in anything but black-and-white. He'd never seen a professional baseball game, just clips in newsreels. So that was how he imagined it, black-and-white and grainy.
Nothin' stoppin' me from goin' to a game, he reflected. But I don't think I could take it. Really seein' all them young bucks, when I'm damn near a cripple? I might lose control, reach out an' start drainin' them on the spot.
Hell, I never even played baseball as a kid. Never got to have any fun. An' now it's too late.
Truth be told, he was envious of Jonesy. By rights, the man should be dead. But thanks to Ben, he was hale and hearty, making a stellar comeback with the Yankees in his forties.
He's old enough to be my pa, but I feel like I could be his.
Thoughts of Jonesy brought back memories of his days with Carnivale, the rough outdoor labor he'd known as a roustie.
Did I ever complain that the work was too hard? I hope not. God, I wish I could do it now! Even with the air clogged with dust, I'd give anythin' to be out on the prairie, liftin' an' haulin', feelin' my muscles do what I tell 'em to, with just the aches that come from an honest day's work.
Instead, I'm turnin' into Belyakov. He shuddered.
I told Samson, "Everything he was, everything he knew, everything he believed, he gave to me."
I spoke truer than I knew. By now I even got his need o' healin'. His bitterness. And, damn it, enough o' his conscience that I ain't never drained no one.
He was tempted, every day. By these vapid bar patrons, by everyone he saw in the course of his day.
A cheer went up. While he'd been brooding, the inning had ended. Jonesy was back on the mound, and he'd just gotten one of the hated Red Sox to hit into a double play.
As he opened his eyes and sat up straight, Ben saw his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He winced. He was only twenty-two. But he was currently giving his age as thirty-two. And people who questioned it suspected him of subtracting years, not adding them.
The bartender ambled over. "Don't mean to rush you, pal, but you're usually out o' here by 3:00."
Ben glanced up at the clock on the wall. "You're right. Thanks! Got caught up in the game."
The bartender beamed. "Easy to do with Jonesy on the mound, ain't it? He's bigger news these days than the Babe!"
Ben nodded agreement. Paid his tab, left a tip.
As he was shuffling out of the tavern, the radio announcer shouted, "Stuh-rike three, swinging! The Horsehide Houdini racks up his fourteenth strikeout!"
Another cheer went up.
Ben longed for another drink. But he settled for popping a mint in his mouth.
Then he realized how his breath must smell - and popped a second.
He still had time to walk the few blocks to his destination. But as usual, he didn't have the energy. So he flagged down a cab.
"Where to?" As he spoke, the driver stepped on the gas - without giving his passenger time to settle himself or even close the door. Ben fell onto the back seat; the searing pain in his belly took his breath away. But he managed to gasp out, "NYU."
He knew that neither his clothes, nor his prematurely lined face and graying hair, suggested a college student.
So he wasn't surprised when the cabbie asked, "You a professor?"
"Yes." (He was trying to break himself of the habit of saying yeah or yep.)
"Huh. Whaddya teach?"
By now Ben had caught his breath. He was still in pain, but that was something he'd learned to live with.
And he couldn't resist. In his best diction, he said, "I teach a bunch of rich kids who're wasting the best years of their lives in stuffy classrooms, studying crap they don't need to know and will never use, because they're too lazy to work."
The driver gave a delighted hoot. "I hear ya! But c'mon - what kind o' useless crap are you teachin' them?"
Ben wrinkled his nose in distaste.