Matthew Callan: Hang a Crooked Number (Fiction)
The game is a sham but I still have to work on my swing. I’ve been lost at the plate for so long you can’t call it a slump. You’d have to invent a new word or borrow one from a language more direct than ours. Fastballs that were once as fat as beach balls have shrunk to the size of dimes. Curveballs break a split second before I expect them to. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, or what I’m not doing that I used to do. Nothing I’ve tried has worked so far. Still, I try.
Dad once made me stand waist-deep in water and swing a bat. He said the surface of the water subconsciously urges you to keep the bat level. A level swing prevents you from getting under the ball or chopping it into the dirt. That translates to more line drives, which translates to more hits. I don’t know where Dad got this idea, but he believed it deeply. I could have shown him scientific proof it was the batting practice equivalent of a placebo and he would have nodded and ordered me to get back into the water anyway.
I’m 99 percent sure the swinging-in-water exercise won’t help at all, but I’d rather cling to one percent than nothing at all. So I jog down what’s left of the Coney Island boardwalk, a Louisville Slugger clutched in my right hand, a beach towel tied to one end of the bat. The towel jerks wildly every time one of my feet touches down, whipping me in the face. This look should not be cultivated by someone in my line of work. My job demands blending in. But my job also demands being good at baseball, so here we are. I need to make the majors. It is a thought that has propelled me forward for so long it is no longer a thought, really. It’s closer to a callus, something I’ve leaned on for too many hours.
Coney Island feels strange and silent at this time in the morning, before the crowds arrive. The rides are still, the food stands that serve up warm beer and rubbery clam strips shuttered. A few short hours from now, the horizon will flutter with bands of vaporized grease and the heat billowing from all the grills frying acres of meat. But right now, there’s no sizzling to be heard. There’s no noise at all beyond my own panting, my feet hitting the boardwalk, the caws of seagulls, and the thud of waves pummeling the shore.
No one else is near the beach now, save for one man with a metal detector who sweeps over the sand in slow arcs. He looks a bit too pale for his hobby, a black baseball cap pulled low and tight on his head, brown socks yanked high up his calves. Not a likely threat, but perhaps a tail. I haven’t been out in the field much since I got back from the DL, and I feel the rust of my time away.
I jog past a quartet of benches positioned under a curved concrete canopy. Two old men, nearly identical, sit on opposite ends of one of the benches. One wears a light blue polo shirt with thin dark blue stripes, the other wears a tan polo shirt with thin black stripes. Same khaki pants, same glasses with thick black frames, same straw boater hats that only old men wear, same sagging, grunting faces. Each one looks determined not to turn and face the other. Budget analysis: harmless.
Everyone is either a Threat or a Non-Threat. I must determine who falls into what category. I can’t concentrate on what’s important until I know what I’m allowed to ignore.
I exit the boardwalk right before the point where the last storm tore away a ten-block stretch and tossed it into the ocean. Or maybe it was the storm before that. It’s become hard to keep track. The storms tend to happen in the offseason, when I’m either playing in a winter league or engaged in refresher training. Lengths of faded yellow police tape cordon off the jagged ends. The bigger lengths of the old boardwalk jut out from the surf beyond the breakers, beached whales stuck on sand bars. A large sign the city has tacked to the railing along the beach says THE BOARDWALK WILL BE BACK! followed by a movie credits’ worth of municipal leaders, but the lettering is scraped and faded. The only hint of construction is a small DOT dump truck parked nearby, filled past the brim with broken wood and topped by all the junk passersby have tossed inside. A 12-foot length of replacement boardwalk has been installed, made of some kind of polymer resin rather than the old wood that used to stand here. The new length stands equidistant from the ruined ends of the wooden boardwalk. It’s stood there, lonely and longing for as long as I’ve lived here. It speaks an unvoiced WE TRIED to the universe.
I descend from the boardwalk to the beach, and the change in terrain interrupts my pace. My legs wobble for a few steps before I adjust and move on. Soda cans, beer bottles, and condom wrappers lie in my path, skittering in the breeze, bumping each other and retreating. There’s more garbage than the last time I came out here. This week was Coney Island’s turn to get the short end of the stick in the Sanitation Department’s rolling service disruptions. Bad scheduling on the mayor’s part, doing this during the busy season when the garbage begins to ripen.
I kick off my sneakers, untie the towel from my bat, and head toward the surf. Summer is here according to the calendar and the temperatures, but the winter still clings to the ocean. An Arctic chill whips across the foam. I charge into the ocean without stopping. Best to enter this water band-aid removal style, one quick yank. The water numbs me from the knees down, and it feels wonderful. Catchers and pain are never separated for long. Most of my body is 25 years old, but my legs are halfway to retirement.
I take a few cuts. Nothing feels right. When I lift my front foot, it comes to rest in the muck of the ocean floor. I can’t plant and pivot. The water puts up too much resistance to my movement. My swing is level, but my bottom hand comes off the bat handle far too early.
I swing twenty times so I can tell myself this exercise wasn’t a complete waste of my time. With my feet planted in the surf, I turn my back on the ocean and look back toward the city. After all the storms, the shoreline is much closer to the mainland than it used to be, but it’s still a long way from here to the rest of Brooklyn. All I see from where I stand is a Ferris wheel ground to a halt, and the huge Stalinist concrete slabs of the Mermaid Houses stabbing the sky, behind an expanse of glittering, littered sand. For a moment I feel like the last man on earth.
I trudge back to where I left my stuff, sand cemented to my legs. As I towel my face off, an insistent buzz rattles from inside one of my shoes, where I left my Society-issued phone. My shoe burrows into the beach with each blast. I watch the sand scatter for five “rings” before I rescue the phone. The Society never hangs up. They never assume you are busy, because members should never be busy with anything but The Society.
When I pick up the phone, I hear the weird pops and buzzes and pixilated squawks that result from the call getting rerouted a million times to render it untraceable. Then a voice strobed and lowered an octave, the sound of a kidnapper. “Go to 86th and Bay Parkway. Wait for a message. Meet handler at O’Malley’s at three.”
Part of me is relieved that I’ve been given an assignment again, so soon after returning. But most of me would rather be in the cage than in the field.
“This is an off day,” I bark into the phone.
“No such thing.” More squeaks and pops, and the line goes dead.
I trudge back toward the stadium, hoping to deposit my bat in the locker room, but the players’ entrance is unattended and locked. It was open and manned when I left for the beach, which couldn’t have been more than a half hour ago. I have no time to ponder the sudden change, or knock on the door and wait for someone to show up and rescue me. I also shouldn’t bring a baseball bat on whatever mission I’m about to do. So I jog around to the first base side of the ballpark, near our dugout, thinking I can fling the bat over the fence. I grasp the thing just above the knob and launch it. The bat spins end over end wildly and falls short of landing on the field, rattling in the first row of seats in front of the dugout, coming to rest between wall-mounted ads for Budweiser and the Marines. I should have time to reclaim it before tonight’s game if the cleaning crew doesn’t show up on time, which is not likely since their last few checks have been late. I don’t care about the bat itself, since it’s the crummiest one I have, but if I lose it I’ll get charged the full retail price of a brand new one by the team. It’s league policy meant to deter low-salaried minor leaguers like me from making off with piles of game-used equipment and selling it to memorabilia prospectors. That market is a monopoly the league reserves for itself. My salary can’t spring for the price of a new wooden bat, especially not one that’s actually an old piece of junk.
The distance from the stadium to 86th Street is not walkable. In any other city, The Society would loan me a car. In New York, with parking meters and alternate-side rules and cameras at every intersection, cars aren’t the best way to fly under the radar. Routine traffic stops and roadblocks don’t help, either. Not that taking public transportation is much better. The subway stations are full of cameras, too, and National Guards in more cases than not. But as far as getting to a destination in a timely fashion goes, the subway is the slightly better of two bad options, so I walk over to the Stillwell Avenue station. It’s going to be a hot one today, and the first crowds are starting to arrive. Great churning clusters of kids run down the stairs from the platform, leaping and screaming with each step. No adults trail them. For these kids, summer will never end.
I ascend a D train platform, enter a car close to the stairs, and sit in a corner by the engineer’s booth. No window at my back, nothing behind me but steel and plastic. In the morning, before the scene grows too crowded, I should be able to spot a threat a mile away, but that’s no reason to make things hard on myself. I put on a pair of sunglasses to hide my eyes as I survey my surroundings. No stirring from the door leading to the next car. The man in the reflective orange MTA vest sweeping trash up from the F train platform across the way is what he appears to be, near as I can tell. The sunglasses aren’t necessary, since there’s no one else in the car. But if I don’t do these things when they’re not needed, the skills may fail me when I do need them.
The conductor makes a garbled announcement over the PA, the doors beep and close, and the train lurches out of the station. It scrapes by the shuttered amusements on Surf Avenue and past the aquarium, then turns left near the Mermaid Houses and begins its descent into the heart of Brooklyn. Closer to Coney sit squat little houses festooned with starfish and lighthouses, razor wire clinging to their summits, followed by chop shops, empty lumber yards, dusty plumbing supply warehouses. Then slender two-story houses with iron railings and tiny, elevated lawns. The train careens on to 86th Street, where all the roofs of all the buildings have been bombed by years of graffiti. One layer surpassed by another, then another, on and on throughout generations of delinquents, every new color adopting the faint sheen of the artwork of the past.
A large billboard grabs me at the 86th Street curve. It features The Killer, star slugger for the big league team my minor league squad feeds into. He clutches a bat in one hand and a fistful of purple entertainment vouchers in the other. He’s not wearing the jersey of our parent team, but the kind of generic elastic-banded white uniform favored by corporate softball squads. Whoever shot the ad couldn’t be bothered to approximate our colors, opting for black and red instead of orange and blue. Licensing fees must have been too much for the city, so they steered clear of the slightest hint of infringement. In large letters: DON’T STRIKE OUT! USE ‘EM WHILE YOU CAN. Slightly smaller type reminds you that city entertainment vouchers do not carry over month-to-month, and if you don’t spend them all patronizing your local movie theater, restaurant, mall, and so on, they’re gone forever. Over The Killer’s huge bald head, a critic has responded with the unambiguous spray-painted counterpoint of FUCK U.
I’m the only person who gets off at the Bay Parkway station, where the undulating tin walls are dotted with snaking tags, plotting a path to the stairs that lead to street level. Most of them are indecipherable to my eyes, save a stencil job that repeats itself down the line at regular intervals, with variations. Each stencil traces the outline of a different, seemingly benign figure. Traffic cop. Doctor. Construction worker. Each is fringed by a warning running its perimeter, the letters stretched and spaced so they wrap around and meet again, head to tail: ENEMIES ABOUND.
No one else stands on the platform when I get off the train, except for some sad case pleading into a pay phone. You often see drunks and other sorry types pick up the receivers of these relics in a subway station, but they always turn away in disgust, realizing they’ve been had. This poor sap had the good fortune to find what must be the last working example in the entire transit system. That, or he only believes he’s talking to someone. His presence makes me suspicious, but another look in his direction dispels my concerns. The desperation on his face and his complete willingness to be exposed don’t correspond with someone who wishes to go unnoticed. “But I NEED it! But I NEED it!” he whines loudly into the phone as I slip past him.
I descend, passing through the swinging doors and turnstiles, into the chamber that barnacles to the underside of the elevated train station. Two guardsmen in full green camouflage stand to the left of the attendant’s booth. Their outfits must help them blend in with the thick jungle growth of southern Brooklyn. Both of them look bored almost to the point of tears until my presence startles them. I must be the first person through this station in hours. One of them yawns and absently pets the barrel of his rifle, which he holds against his chest. His caramel-colored face is dotted with fresh acne. He is younger than me. His freshness upsets me.
Along 86th Street, I peer in a few shop windows, stop at a fruit stand, then walk slowly back and around the corner to perform the same rites in a slightly different way. The weatherman says we’ll get into the 90s again today, but I’m pretty sure we’re there already. The sun radiates off the pavement, sucking energy from me with each step. A sick smell hangs in the air, the stench of things people dropped and left behind months ago. The stink is artificial and brutally organic all at once. It hits my nose and I do my best to not breathe in, but I can feel it there at foot of my nostrils, biding its time.
I pass an armored NYPD vehicle, parked and waiting for its next raid. Cops in bulletproof vests lean against it, trading filthy jokes. One of them leers at a girl in microscopic jean shorts, his eyes trained on her ass she bops down the block, following her long after he could possibly make out any discernible movement.
After ten minutes of wandering, my phone buzzes. Picture message, subject CONFIRM, accompanied by a mug shot of some guy who could extra in any mob movie. The picture’s caption is an address on Bay Parkway. I see it right across the street, Vinny’s Pizza. This is a Confirmation Job, the lamest work the Society has to offer.
All Society targets have to be confirmed by a third party. Most of the time, that confirmation is done by scrub minor leaguers such as me. It’s a shit detail if there ever was one, the Society’s equivalent of KP duty. What’s happened in this situation, I assume, is this: The Society has decided to apprehend someone. I have to go spot this person and verify that he is, in fact, the desired target. I’m given this photo on which to base my analysis. It’s bureaucratic bullshit, a step meant to prevent abuse but which ultimately serves no purpose but creating a data trail we really don’t want.
So now I have to walk into this pizzeria, spot a guy, and text back CONFIRMED. Once I do this, a mission can go ahead unimpeded. What is that mission? I don’t know. I’ll probably never know. They could have gotten any schmuck in the world to do this job, but they asked me to do it, on my day off. This is how far down the ladder I’ve fallen. Some other fuckup is still recovering from a vicious hangover or a desperate 3 a.m. pussy hunt and so it falls to me to take out his trash.
Vinny’s is an old-school pizza joint with curved orange seats leaning over faux wooden tables bolted to the floor. My parents used to take me to one just like this before my mother got too sick to eat pizza or much of anything else. I put my hand on the bar across the front door and see my reflection in the glass, broken up by handprints and other smudges. This feels far too familiar to me, in a bad way, a taunt from a schoolyard bully I swore I’d forget by now. I pause a moment before going in, swatting these memories from the front of my mind.
“Can I help you,” says the kid behind the counter, leaning across the linoleum. His pencil-thin teenage mustache bristles. There’s no question mark concluding his statement because he has no true desire to help me. For cover, I ask for a slice I won’t eat. Greasy food is no good for my conditioning. It’s also the kind of food that’s been giving me trouble lately. I eat something too spicy, too rich, too anything, and my stomach rebels.
While standing at the counter, I see the target seated in the back. Black leather jacket, slicked-back thinning hair. He taps his foot out of rhythm with the Van Halen song squeezing its way through the tinny speakers of a black boom box perched on top of a Coke bottle-shaped cooler. His head darts in all directions each time he hears the little bell that rings when the front door opens. The movement is drastic at first. Then he seems to remember how conspicuous it looks and slows down the dart midstream. This place is familiar to him, but that does nothing to alleviate his nervousness. He is a first-class neighborhood mook, always on the lookout for a threat or an opening to a new hustle.
I get all of this at a glance of his reflection in the glass partition at the front of the pizza counter. But I don’t look at the glass for long, either. I can’t stare at these kinds of people. Anyone in our world can sense when he’s being stared at, even when only his reflection is getting the attention.
The teen behind the counter slaps my slice down on a paper plate next to the cash register. I tell him I want the pizza to go. He slides the slice into a paper bag with a sloth-like torpor, then takes my money as if he’s done me an enormous favor.
I exit the pizza place and text back CONFIRMED. As soon as I hit “send,” I feel a tug at my sleeve. An itchy bum who’s been shuffling outside the pizza place wants my attention. Despite the weather, he wears a hooded sweatshirt, pullstrings frazzled, faded gray fabric scratching a jagged beard. He has the smell of a half-empty soda bottle left out in the sun.
“Spay chine, get summeat?” the bum says, which I take to mean Spare some change, get something to eat? Since I’m not going to eat my pizza anyway, I hand it over to him. But the bum isn’t grateful. It’s a rare vagrant who asks for money for food and actually wants to buy food.
“Muhfucka, I didn’t axe for no goddam pizza.” He takes it anyway, however, ripping open the bag and tearing into the slice with violence.
I didn’t notice this guy outside before, and he’s not the kind of person who should go unnoticed around here. The homeless are not common in this part of Brooklyn. There’s no shortage of hopeless drunks who fight lampposts and stumble home to the wrong apartments, but truly dedicated street people are rare. His pullstrings are frazzled but they’re perfectly even, aglets clinging to their extremities. What are the odds a guy who’s been living on the street would still have the pullstrings in his hoodie at all? There’s a good chance this bum is someone doing a good bum imitation. Maybe a tail from the Society trying to make sure I do my job right. Maybe someone trying to impede my work, for reasons I can’t know. Maybe something else that hasn’t yet occurred to me.
While I stand outside the pizza place wondering about the bum’s true nature, out walks The Mook. He’s stepped out for a smoke, unsheathing a packet of Camels from his inside jacket pocket. Our eyes meet. His face turns white. He sees something in me that makes him suspicious. Once he’s seen it, the look I give back makes him even more suspicious. He bolts and runs toward 86th Street.
This is bad. What’s even worse is that The Mook’s lizard brain survival instincts are contagious, because I run after him. I could call in this situation, or I could stay put. Instead, I choose to chase him, which is the dumbest possible option. And yet, this never feels like a choice at all. It simply happened, and it continues to happen in a place where thought can’t touch. My brain yells at my legs What the fuck are you doing?! My legs yell right back, Don’t look at us. You think we wanna run? Once I’ve started, I have no choice but to keep running until I catch this guy or my legs give out. I’m not sure which end is likelier. As I pick up speed, sand scrapes the spaces between my toes. I thought I’d cleaned all of it off before I left the beach, but I thought wrong.
The Mook sprints like a man who’s never had to move at a faster pace than a stroll. He pumps his legs higher and harder than he has to, his knees almost touching his chin with each stride. His arms whip back and forth like an android trying to row a boat. For all his awkwardness, he has two things I don’t: adrenaline and the fear of imminent death. So he doesn’t think twice before sprinting across all six lanes of 86th Street against traffic. In this part of Brooklyn, drivers are used to playing chicken with clueless and fearless pedestrians. A white SUV swerves to avoid him on the westbound half of the street, as does a squat delivery truck on the eastbound half, but the vehicles don’t even spare an obscene gesture in his direction. The Mook shields himself behind a train track support beam for a second, then continues his uncomfortable trot down Bay Parkway. The businesses of the main drag give way to little houses with postage stamp-sized lawns. Each house displays a cornucopia of seasonal decorations, the American flag, and banners proclaiming allegiance to various sports teams (not necessarily hung in that order). Virgin Mary on the halfshell stands parallel to the imposing logos of home security systems. Warnings abound, cautioning those with evil on their minds of the presence of pitbulls, signs indicating TRESPASSERS WILL BE KILLED AND EATEN. These directives are flanked by unproofread pledges to unnamed terrorists that YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERRED and WE’RE GONA GETCHA.
By the time I reach 86th Street, the light has changed, and so I zip through the crosswalk untouched, save for a red pickup truck who wants to see how close he can get before crushing me under his wheels. I cross the street before the red hand has stopped blinking. I’ve already made up quite a bit of distance between The Mook and myself. I could run harder, but my legs would tire faster. The Mook fears for his life and won’t stop, so I have to pace myself. This is his turf. He probably knows some back alleys or other shortcuts where he can lose me. I need to think of some way of taking him down before he can do that. I don’t spot any garbage cans I could pick up and hurl at him, or anything else that could be used for that purpose. I don’t have anything on me I could throw at his feet, other than my cell phone. If I break that, I’d see a hit in my next paycheck.
As I ponder my next move, The Mook out-stupids me and does the dumbest thing he could do right now, short of stopping altogether. He looks back to see if I’m still following him. He does it slowly, craning his head inch by inch. This prevents him from seeing the spot in the sidewalk where one stone slab is elevated above the others. His right foot slams into the edge of the protruding stone and he stumbles for a few strides, feet slamming the pavement with harsh slaps, his arms flung out to the sides, walking tightrope. The Mook almost corrects his balance before his left thigh collides with the nozzle of a fire hydrant. He pivots and tries to keep running, but as soon as he puts weight on his left leg, he collapses to the concrete with an unhealthy thud, face first. I want to celebrate my victory, but this isn’t a true win. I’ve only caught up to this wreck because its tires shredded. I lean over and place my hands on The Mook’s back, as if it will make his capture official.
The Mook winces in pain. He puts his palms flat on the ground, but has no strength to hoist himself upright, his labored exhalations chopped up by a smoker’s wheeze. “What the FUCK was that FUCKIN’ thing DOING THERE?!” he screams. In his anger, he kicks back his left leg and connects his foot with the hydrant behind him, shooting more pain through his body. “FUCK!” He balls his right hand into a fist and punches the sidewalk, then lets out another pained yowl, having injured himself in a brand new place. I can’t imagine why The Society was so anxious to track down this guy. He seems the kind of person who would take care of himself in some Darwinian fashion, sooner or later.
A white windowless cargo van pulls up to the curb, coming to a halt with screeching tires. The sliding side door opens. Two men in SWAT team-type gear jump out, rattling around with bulletproof vests and assault rifles, faces obscured behind reflective visors. One grabs the The Mook’s arms, the other grabs his legs. They hustle him into the van, where his howls of pain are soon muffled by the hood they slide onto his head, pulling it tight at the neck with a laundry bag drawstring. Once The Mook is safely inside, one of the operatives grabs the sliding door to sling it closed, but not before shooting me a dirty look. I can’t see his eyes behind his visor, but I know a dirty look when I’m fixed with one. The door shuts, and the van squeals away down Bay Parkway.
I could use a long wait for the train to delay the inevitable, but of course, the D arrives right away for once. It’s packed with beachgoers, no more seats left. Kids twirl around the poles that run from floor to ceiling. Two girls in matching rainbow bikinis toss a beach ball back and forth across the aisle. Another girl in a bikini nuzzles up to her shirtless boyfriend while his eyes remain trained on his phone. I survey the scene to see if anyone sets off threat signals. Nothing. So I grab an overhead bar with both hands, bury my head between my arms, and curse myself.
Matthew Callan writes about the New York Mets for Amazin' Avenue and has written about many other things for The Awl, Baseball Prospectus, The Classical, and Vice. He is also the host of Replacement Players, a podcast where he forces guests to watch and discuss old games. Catch him on Twitter at @scratchbomb.