GOING, GOING, GONE
By Steve Hermanos
© all rights reserved
André Velez presses his thumb onto the vicious scratch on the door of his brand-new, canary-yellow Lamborghini. Velez kneels, his thumb tracing the wiggly indent, starting above the handle, going along the door, and ending on the panel near the brake light. Turning to his entourage—three guys who do everything he asks—he tells them, “Whoever keyed my car is gonna die!”
The trio shifts uneasily and echoes their boss’s rage, “Gonna die!” “We’ll get whoever did this!” “Some idiot!” One of them tells Velez, “Don’t let it distract you. You’ve got the World Series to win.” San Francisco is leading New York three games to two. If San Francisco can win one more game, they will win the championship. André Velez is the most feared hitter in the San Francisco lineup.
Velez grunts and rises. Scanning the other cars in the players’ parking lot, which is in the shadow of the left field stands of the ballpark straddling the shifting edge of San Francisco Bay, Velez is reassured that none of the other cars is as fantastic or expensive as his. He owns seventeen cars, not counting his wife’s two cars and the cars he’s bought for his entourage. As he leads them towards the players’ entrance to the stadium, one of his entourage cracks gum and says, “When you win you can buy us each a Lambo!” which makes Velez chuckle, permitting the others to laugh.
Two hours later, after warm-ups and batting practice, Velez reclines on his massage chair. He’s in his white uniform pants with the black piping, long-sleeve undershirt with black sleeves, his body rippling in a slow wave as his chair’s rollers press into his aching back. He groans in relief. He and his $52,000 custom-made massage chair occupy five lockers (the barriers between the lockers were removed long ago). No other player has more than one locker, but no other player has been voted Most Valuable Player, and André Velez is a two-time MVP.
The three members of his entourage have headed off in three different directions: one to check on Velez’s wife, Cookie, who will be sitting with the other wives; another to find April, André’s girl from Scottsdale, who will be sitting in the Club Level; the third to steer Gloria, André’s San Francisco girlfriend, away from the other two. Recently Gloria’s been leaving messages for André, threatening to send photos of their Paris trip from last winter to Cookie. Gloria is also claiming she’s pregnant, but she claimed it a year ago, and the year before that. A baby bump has yet to appear. His entourage has pleaded with him to break it off with Gloria, to pay her off, but Velez enjoys rendezvousing with Gloria at his San Francisco condo. His main abode is his 7,000 square foot house in his compound in Belmont, which features two guest houses, his 15-car garage, and an indoor gym larger than a basketball court. Cookie has just redecorated the main house the tune of $3,000,000.
Eyes closed, Velez tells himself to visualize. He can see the Yankees’ starting pitcher for the game, Hernandez. Velez can see the ball emerging out of Hernandez’s right hand, parallel with Hernandez’s fifth or sixth rib. The ball slings straight, the seams on the ball spinning down—slider—and Velez knows that the ball will dive out of the strike zone. Velez smiles. If he can see the ball now, in his mind, he knows he’ll be able to see the ball when it’s live, when the seams are spinning sideways, like the rotation of the earth, his bat crushing Hernandez’s fastball.
Fifteen feet away, I’m staring at the reclining André Velez. My arms are crossed, my second-baseman’s mitt tucked under my armpit, lampblack under my eyes making me look as tough as possible even though I’m only 5’10” and 175 pounds. My right knee throbs from when New York’s Jackson barrel-rolled into me while I was turning a double play in Game 4. But the play ended the game, and I was its hero, having slapped two singles and cranked a triple into Yankee Stadium’s expansive left-center field, and the ball rolled all the way to the wall. I’m hitting .412 in the World Series, having played only 46 games since being called up from Triple A after the team’s regular second baseman tore up his knee on a slide into third base. I hit .278/.358/.422 in my 46 games in the big leagues, and I field better than almost any other second baseman. I know I’ve got to improve my hitting—more walks, more doubles, triples, and homers—if I’m gonna have a long Major League career. But right now I’m ecstatic about the possibility of winning one more game and a World Series. I can see the parade going up Market Street, riding in the back of a car with my wife, Darla—though right now Darla is home in Alabama, 9 ¼ months pregnant. Overdue!
Brothers, the right fielder, puts a hand on my shoulder and says to me softly, “Maybe one day you’ll have five lockers.” We gaze at André Velez reclined in his massage chair. It’s hard to argue with Velez’s pair of Most Valuable Player awards, 378 homers, a lifetime split of .298/.405/.556—that’s .298 batting average; .405 on-base percentage; .556 slugging percentage. I figure Velez will be in the Hall of Fame one day, and I’ll be able to tell my grandkids I played with a Hall of Famer. Or I can try to be a Hall of Famer. But André Velez is not going to be in any fielding Hall of Fame. His range is limited on bunts and dribblers between the pitcher’s mound and first base. I’ve got to play about six feet closer to first base than I would with an average first baseman; this situation surrenders some hits up the middle. Brothers continues, “He takes all the fun out of the game. It’s 24 Giants plus André Velez.”
I respond, “If he hits three homers tonight and we win the World Series then he can have my locker next year too, and that’ll give him six lockers.”
Brothers chuckles and says, “I hope he signs with another team.” The moment the World Series is over, André Velez will be a free agent and can sign with any team that can afford him. The contract will surely be a significant fraction of a billion dollars. Brothers continues, “Last night I keyed his car.”
I recoil at the concept, asking, “That Lambo he just bought?”
Brothers already has lamp black under his eyes, making him look a bit psycho. He explains, “After he valeted his car. I pulled in and there it was. I couldn’t resist. Don’t tell anyone or I’ll kill you.”
“Blent!” the head trainer shouts. I stare incredulously at Brothers as I head to the trainer’s office. Thirty seconds later a needle pierces the epidermis just above my right knee. I ask, “Shouldn’t we have done this a while ago? We’re about to go on the field.”
The trainer glances at the manager, Bucky Martin, who’s buttoning up his uniform shirt as he watches the syringe’s plunger depress. Behind the trainer, the assistant trainer says to Martin, “Your hair, Buck, you should check it.” Martin’s salt-and-pepper hair looks like it’s an unpainted model of a stormy sea. Martin says, “What am I, a Hollywood actor? Next you’re gonna tell me to wax my eyebrows!”
The trainers chuckle. Martin cups my shoulder and tells me, “Just don’t try to do too much. You’re my starting second baseman, so don’t worry about anything. You’ve already done enough to get us here.”
“Thanks,” I look up at my manager, and even after 46 games plus the playoffs, I still can hardly believe I’m having a one-on-one conversation with Bucky Martin.
Four hours later, it’s the top of the 8th inning. One out. No one on base. We’re five outs from winning the World Series.
NEW YORK 2 SAN FRANCISCO 5
The batted ball rises above the top rim of the stadium, arcing into foul territory. I race after the ball, tracking it. Out the corner of my eye André Velez is lumbering towards the area of the stands where the ball should come down. I yell, “I got it!” Velez is supposed to back off. I have an easier angle on the ball. It looks like it’s gonna drop three rows into the stands and I have to decide if I’m going airborne, headfirst, risking breaking my face on the metal seat dividers. But it’s Game 6 of the World Series, so here I go, flying over the low brick wall, glove extended, the ball coming down and I think I have a good shot at catching it.
BLAM! Velez’s mitt smacks mine, the ball hitting my wrist and falling to the concrete. Velez crashes into me, crushing me into the seats. 48,000 fans moan. Velez lifts himself off of me without apologizing for messing up the play. If he hadn’t bashed into me we could’ve taken one precious out away from the Yankees, leaving us that much closer to winning the World Series.
“You guys all right?” the right fielder, Brothers, yells from the side of the stands.
Velez rubs the blond head of a boy in the first row as he climbs over the low concrete wall to the field. Fans around me are cringing as they look at me. A little girl breaks into tears. I feel something on my face and touch it, and my fingers are red. I lick my fingers: ketchup. There’s a mass of garlic fries spattered with ketchup under the seat that I crashed into. I lift my uniform sleeve and wipe the ketchup from my face.
As Velez jogs towards first base I sprint up next to him.
Brothers asks again, “You guys all right?” Velez says to Brothers, “Yeah,” and Velez flaps his mitt in Brothers’ direction. But I snap, pressing my mitt into Velez’s ribs, telling him, “That was my ball!”
As if it’s a piece of greasy paper blown up from the street, Velez wipes my glove from his ribs. He says, “My ball.”
I push him again, “You’re wrong!” He glances up into the stands, then Velez turns and shoves me in the chest, forcing me two steps back. Without thinking I retrace the two steps and jump, thrusting my arms into Velez’s chest, and I scream, “I’ll punch your lights out right now!”
It takes a moment for the shortstop, pitcher, third baseman and catcher to realize that Velez and I are about to start fighting in the middle of the World Series. The infielders sprint at us. Velez snarls, “What’s your problem, dude?!” He’s 6’4” and has me by five inches. The infielders, catcher, Brothers, and manager Martin converge on us. The infielders tug me towards the pitching mound; Brothers and Martin push Velez towards the outfield.
I’m sure that my wife, Darla, 2300 miles away in Huntsville, is yelling at her screen, “Calm down, Johnny Blent!” I’m sure that those in the press box and the know-it-alls in the stands and those watching in a billion households across the globe are burbling about this moment of friction, and the blame is more on me than it is Velez. I’m the one who pushed him, and I’m a rookie. But he should’ve let me go for that foul ball.
Behind me I hear the raspy voice of our manager, Bucky Martin, “Hey!” He’s crooking his finger at me; he’s on the mound with the pitcher, Hashitawa, and the catcher, Molina, and Velez. I step up onto the side of the mound. Martin barks at me, “Calm the hell down!” Velez and Molina share a laugh at my expense. Hashitawa is in his own little world, kicking at the mound. But Hashitawa seems nervous.
I nod O.K. and retreat, squirting a jet of tobacco juice as I take my position. But Martin has humiliated me, probably to placate Velez and the other veterans. Despite everything, I am sure I am right about that foul ball: it was mine, mine, mine, and Velez screwed me up.
Staring into the eyes of Hashitawa, Martin says, “Just take ’em one at a time.” Hashitawa gazes away at the centerfield video screen, which is showing Martin talking to him. Nodding his head towards me and Velez, who is retreating to first base, Martin tells Hashitawa, “Forget that stupid horse crap.” To Molina, Martin asks, “You believe those two?” Molina smiles from behind his mask and diplomatically says nothing.
Jerking his elbow towards the batter Martin tells Hashitawa, “Just get this guy.”
“O.K.,” Hashitawa replies.
Walk. Double. Single. Homer. Hashitawa does not throw another strike. We don’t get another base runner. I don’t get another at-bat. Neither does Velez.
FINAL NEW YORK 6 SAN FRANCISCO 5
The World Series is tied three games each, and all of the San Francisco momentum has evaporated. In the clubhouse, Velez sits on a stool facing into his locker. He’s in his uniform pants and undershirt, as he responds to messages from Cookie, April, Gloria, and his entourage. Satisfied that his various women are headed in directions that will not intersect, he senses the lumpy, poorly-groomed presence of 70 reporters standing inches from his back. They’ll want to talk about the bull-crap that happened on the field between him and me.
Ten minutes later I’m in the shower, hot water pattering the top of my head and running down my body when a finger pokes into my shoulder, and Velez’s voice, “Don’t show me up, rookie!”
I swat his hand away, rub the water out of my eyes, and bellow, “You cost us the game! That was my ball!”
His big eyes go wide and with both hands he shoves me. Brothers and Molina and one of the pitchers start yelling at us, and Velez throws a jab at my eye and before I can punch back the others jump between us and I’m screaming at Velez as I go after him, and the other guys are screaming at me, and Velez is throwing unconnecting haymakers from behind the naked wall of players separating us. Ballplayers and coaches rush into the shower, pulling at the tangle and separating me and Velez.
I feel my eye swelling. Blood trickles from behind Velez’s ear into the film of soap on his neck. Martin clamps a hand onto Velez’s upper arm, the other hand on my elbow, and marches us through the clubhouse, where reporters and cameramen stare open-mouthed, notebooks and phones and cameras pointing at us like compass needles as we are directed by Mr. Martin into his office.
Martin shuts the door and points at the two chairs in front of his desk. “Sit!”
“He hit me in the shower!” I protest.
“He won’t stop riding me!” explains Velez. “Why do I have to take so much crap from him—a rookie?!”
Martin sits in his chair and pounds his fist into his desk. “This has to end! Now!” He’s squinting and frowning. His black-and-white chest hairs are curling out above his undershirt. “Quiet!” He’s digging through a drawer. Velez and I are glaring at each other.
I used to love Velez. In my freshman year dorm at the University of Minnesota, André Velez was one of the ballplayer posters on my wall. Now Velez’s red eyes are drilling holes into me. I ask him, “Do you know what a prima donna is?”
Martin barks, “Shut up!” and slaps the desk. He’s holding up a cigar. Behind him are framed photographs, signed baseballs in plastic cubes on the shelves. There’s a little computer on his desk. Our first meeting in this office he told me to have fun and pretend I’ve gone from Triple A to Double A, rather than Triple A to the Big Leagues. That way, he explained, I will feel less intimidated. I told him that I didn’t feel intimidated, that I’ve been waiting my whole life to be in the Big Leagues, that I’m ready, I won’t be distracted by the Big League life, I’m married, I went to college, I’m mature for my age, and that I’ll prove it to him by my actions and not just by my words.
Now Martin holds the cigar in both hands, showing it to us, “This is an extremely rare Dos Fuegos Maduro Cuban. I’ve been saving it to celebrate winning the World Series. I’ve never won a World Series before. I’d like you guys to lead the way.” I’m pleasantly surprised he’s asking me to lead the way. It’s an honor. Martin points at me and says, “You’re a rookie! Show André Velez some respect!” Opening a penknife and cutting into the cigar, Martin says to Velez and me, “You guys gotta play next to each other tomorrow! It’s the seventh game of the World Series for God’s sake!” He slices the cigar into three equal sections.
Velez asks, “What are you doing?! You shouldn’t even be touching tobacco!”
Martin looks up at me and says, “André is referring to a bout of cancer two years ago. The cancer is gone.” To Velez, he says, “You’re right. I shouldn’t be smoking a cigar.” He closes the penknife and hands one-third of the cigar to me and a third to Velez, and says, “Dos Fuegos Maduro Cuban. They only make it from a certain part of a field. This is a peace cigar, and also a victory cigar. Here’s to tomorrow.”
Velez says, “Isn’t that bad luck? If it’s for tomorrow then we should save it for tomorrow.”
“No. We’re doing it now,” says Martin. He asks me, “Ever smoke a cigar?”
“Sure,” I tell him. I’m a fan of Red Man chewing tobacco, but I’ve smoked cigars at the fraternity house at UMN. I wound up at the University of Minnesota because I broke my right femur senior year of high school. I got no offers from decent baseball colleges. I got into UMN based on grades and tests, and I was happy to go. I was pretty sure that my baseball career was over, but my leg healed well and I tore up the league my sophomore, and junior years, hitting .403 and .422. The Giants drafted me in the 38th round.
Martin strikes a match. Velez leans across the desk, expertly lighting the one-third cigar. Martin strikes another match for me, and then himself. We three sit there smoking. I want to stand up and move my knee so the muscles don’t lock up but I don’t want to show Martin that the knee’s bothering me. We each spit out pieces of tobacco that have spilled into our mouths, and stare at the swirls of smoke.
Martin is pinching a piece of tobacco off his tongue, and Velez is saying, “I gotta go,” rising naked from the chair, when a far-off rumbling quickly increases. Velez asks, “What’s that?” Half a second later the room shakes. It sways, throwing Martin’s desk lamp to the floor. The room is rattling, dropping photos and awards from the walls and the bookcase, which topples. The desk is vibrating like a blob of oil dropped onto an overheated frying pan. The noise is louder than any stadium crowd.
I step towards the door as the ceiling collapses in front of me. The room throbs, cracks, undulates. Martin shouts, “In here!” shoving me into the space under his desk, then shoving in as much of Velez that will fit. Martin crouches next to us, shields himself with his chair as more of the ceiling falls, as the roaring, shaking, cracking, crashing, and rumbling go on and on. Then it stops. The air is thick with dust. Martin lifts his shirt to cover his nose and mouth. His cigar is gone.
Velez is crammed in next to me, his elbow in my face. I tell him, “Get off!”
Velez hisses, “My eye, man!”
We crawl out into the wrecked office. Most of the ceiling has come down. None of us seem hurt.
“You guys all right?” Martin asks.
It’s the first earthquake I’ve ever experienced. My heart is pounding hard. Martin takes a step towards the door, but a pile of cinderblocks and a twisted steel ceiling beam barricade it. The wall across from the desk is mostly crumbled. Dust hangs in the air.
“You have a flashlight?” Velez asks.
“No,” replies Martin.
My feet are wet. The carpet is squishy. The office, the clubhouse, the whole stadium, is built on pylons not very much above the waterline, and I wonder if the entire structure has collapsed. The first clear thought: I’m very glad that Darla is home in Alabama, spared the earthquake. My second thought: I’m worried there’s gonna be aftershocks.
Martin pulls on the fat iron beam diagonally covering the door, but the beam doesn’t move. Velez and I climb onto the rubble blocking the door. It bites my bare feet. Velez and I try to jerk the iron beam, yanking on it with all of our strength, but it’s immobile. Martin bangs on the door, trying to communicate with the rest of the team, “You guys O.K. in there!?” We listen for a reply. There is only silence. I find an exposed patch of door and pound my fist on it. Icy water covers our feet.
“Pipes broken,” Velez comments about the water. I’m thinking about tomorrow’s game. If the stadium is wrecked—and it probably is—where would we play it?
Martin tells me and Velez, “We might’ve dropped into the Bay.” Martin pounds on the door, “Hey! Anybody!” Martin, Velez, and I yell names of teammates and coaches. Velez presses his ear to the door, listening, and shouts at me and Martin, “Shut up!” All I hear is the sound of my own breathing and my pounding heart, the sounds overwhelmed by a deep rumbling, followed by a deafening CRACK! Martin commands, “The desk!” He lets us wedge in, then gets part of his body in just as more of the ceiling falls. The building shakes up, down, sideways. The floor seems to drop. Water is rapidly rising. Velez wails, “I don’t want to die!” And the shaking continues, undulating like we’re little specks on God’s beach towel and He is flapping sand out of it before folding it up and packing it away. The shaking and undulating go on and on. I silently ask God to make it stop. Martin counts aloud, reaching 52 before it stops.
Martin pushes out from under the desk. Then Velez and I slosh out and stand. The water is up to my knees. The door is further barricaded: a second beam, cinderblocks, and broken concrete now only leave a little area of door exposed. I feel air on my face—a breeze from a wide crack in the wall across from the desk. Martin lies across the pile of debris and gets a fist on the door and punches it. Velez and I pull away chunks of cinderblock and pound on the door. Martin yells for our teammates and coaches, “Guys! Guys! Guys! Guys!”
“Hey!” I shout at the door. “Hey!”
“Help!” Velez yells. “We’re stuck!” Velez slaps the door. “Get my phone! It’s in my locker!”
We continue pounding on the door and shouting for help as the water rises. It’s waist high, and it’s numbing. Martin sloshes over and peers into the black opening across from his desk. He asks us, “Ready to get out of here?” Velez and I do not dissent. Martin leads, crawling through a pitch-black, wet opening of collapsed concrete, tangled re-bar, pipes, wires, and mud. As something scurries along Velez’s thigh, he yelps, “A rat!” and sloshes into me, knocking me onto sharp rocks.
“You alright?” Martin looks back at us.
“Yes sir,” I reply. The water is up to my chest. It’s so cold I can’t feel my feet.
Martin swims forward, breast stroking into San Francisco Bay. He tells us, “There’s the sky!” his voice echoing in the tunnel of debris and rocks from which we’re emanating.
“All right!” I exclaim. “We’re gonna win the frickin’ game tomorrow!”
Ahead of me, Velez pushes off, swimming into the Bay.
“Man, I’m not gonna read the crappy baseball news today,” I’m sort of talking to myself. And then my pinky smashes into a submerged rock, “Dammit!” I swim into the body of water, my view blocked by large, masted ships. The stars are piercing. Over on shore there are no lit streetlights. I float on my back, looking up, but do not see a stadium, just the silhouette of piles of rocks. We swim between boats. A boy’s dirt-streaked face appears over the side of the nearest boat. “Pitched overboard?” asks the face.
“We crawled out of the stadium,” replies Martin. I tread water, half-glad the kid on the boat doesn’t recognize Martin or Velez—so far in my career, only a few people have recognized me away from the ballpark. Martin asks the kid, “You O.K.?”
“Good place for an earthquake is on a boat,” the kid replies. “Go around and follow the pier to the landing. Mind the filth.” Something on the boat attracts the boy’s attention from us, and the boy yells, “Put that down you son of Sodom!”
Martin swims towards shore, leading us. As we pass bobbing pig heads encrusted with crabs, Velez yelps, “Let’s get out of here!” and we all swim faster. We make it to a boat landing, and crawl out of the muck. The three of us stand up, naked and dripping on the shore as men carrying buckets, men carrying rakes, men carrying shovels, jog and run towards downtown where an orange glow fringes the night.
Glancing in the direction we just swam, I only see piles of rocks, garbage, the Bay, and sailboats. I ask, “Where’s the stadium?”
A confused look on his face, Velez asks, “Where’s the parking lot? Where’s my Lamborghini?”
Right now I’m not worried about cars. I’m worried about getting some clothes because it’s damn cold and we’re dripping wet and naked. The men going past us wear undershirts, suspenders, trousers, shoes, workboots. Their hair is short and greased. The colors of their clothes seem very muted; maybe it’s the pre-dawn light. Some of them glance at us naked men, but none of them says anything to us. It’s a bit odd because everyone in San Francisco knows André Velez. He’s been a hero with this franchise for nine years. His face is on billboards selling hamburgers and Mercedes. And every baseball fan knows Bucky Martin.
Martin says, “I want to check the stadium.”
People are rushing past us in both directions, towards downtown and the fire, and away from the fire. What happened to the 48,000 people in the stadium? It always empties quickly but maybe the crowd dispersed extra quick after the lousy loss. And what happened to our teammates and the coaches, the trainers and clubhouse attendants, the batboys, the ushers, the ticket attendants, the peanut and hot dog vendors? I am aware that I am in shock, that my body feels thick, that I am almost standing outside of myself, listening to my words as I speak them, “You guys all right?”
Velez glances at me but doesn’t say anything.
“Yes,” Martin replies, adding, “Let’s go this way.”
Martin leads us north along the Bay. There is an enormous number of masted ships pulled up to docks or moored out in the water. Slick-haired men carrying buckets continue running past us towards downtown, where orange and red flames lick at the sky. I’m waiting for my 20-story apartment building on King Street to come into view, but as we walk, I see nothing but sky and flames in the distance. King Street is dirt and it’s lined with warehouses and a stable full of whinnying horses. My apartment building does not exist. I think of my car—my new Mustang!—parked in the building’s garage. I think of my new TV and of the framed photos of me and Darla on the walls of the apartment. There is no sign of a big building, and no massive pile of rubble. Just the warehouses and the stable.
We stop at the place where the main entrance to the stadium should be, but it is water, an inlet off the Bay, full of boats with masts, a tug boat, some of the boats stacked with wooden crates, some crawling with men. The orange Coast Guard boats, the plastic kayaks, the white-sailed pleasure craft that usually pack the water during games—these are absent.
To Martin, to myself, to no one, I ask, “Where’s the stadium?”
Martin scans the scene. The buildings are lower; some are toppled rubble; the street is dirt. The site of the stadium is just another part of the Bay. He exhales, “I don’t know.”
“Maybe the parking lot is O.K.,” says Velez. “Man, I hope my Lambo didn’t get dinged by a car shaking into it.”
We wander in the direction of where the players’ parking lot should be. We soon find ourselves on a spit of land. The outline of the Bay, and across the water, the Oakland hills, are familiar. There is Treasure Island, but no Bay Bridge. Burning downtown San Francisco has no skyscrapers, no tall condo buildings. In the distance there is one building that I recognize—the Ferry Terminal clock tower.
“Where’s the parking lot?” asks Velez. “I hope my peeps are taking care of everybody. I had two girls in there, and my wife.” He continues, “I need a phone, man.” To Martin he says, “You should have taken your phone with you.”
“Yeah,” Martin agrees. “I should have taken a lot of things.”
“The whole city seems to be destroyed,” I say. “It isn’t here.”
Velez asks, “And what about our team?! And all the people?!” Velez asks Martin, “What are we gonna do?! Where’s the help?! Where’s the police or the fire engines? Someone digging our people out?!”
“I don’t know,” Martin replies. “The stadium isn’t here.”
The only things real to me are the pain in my knee and the constellation of various dings and bruises from playing baseball almost every night for seven months. I rub a flange of thumbnail against my index finger, feeling the sharpness of the nail. That sensation is real.
Martin says, “Let’s keep going.”
“Where’d you guys come from?” asks a voice behind us. It’s a man in a cart, holding the reins to an old, gray, sway-backed horse. The cart is piled with potatoes.
“Right there,” Martin replies, indicating the watery, vanished site of the ballpark. Martin asks, “You know where we could get some clothes?”
The man replies, “Lots of stores on Market Street and Mission.”
“Any place giving them out for free?” Martin asks. “We lost everything.”
“Try the churches,” says the man. “They’re all over the place. Bunch of swindlers, you ask me.” His tone changes, “Hungry?!” He reaches under the slat that serves as his seat, and pulls out a steaming tin bucket. He tosses a potato to Martin, then to me, then to Velez, who drops his on the ground. I laugh at Velez’s fielding error.
“Thank you, mister,” I say. Velez asks the man, “You want an autograph?”
The man’s smile lacks a significant number of teeth. “Autograph for what?”
“We’re the Giants,” says Velez. “We play right here.” He indicates the inlet.
“Play what?” asks the man.
Velez replies, “Baseball!”
“No thanks, gents. Right now we’ve got other things to concern ourselves with other than games, don’t we?” He raises a hand at the conflagration, which has colored the dawn sky orange, then tosses an empty potato sack at us. It flops to the ground at our bare feet. He says, “That should cover one or two of you.” Staring at us for a moment he adds, “That thing costs four cents. At least you could say, ‘thank you.’”
“Thanks!” pipes Martin. “Pardon our manners!”
The man humphs, snaps the reins, and his horse yanks the cart forward. We alternate between munching our potatoes and holding them between our numb palms. I rub mine over my arms and chest, getting a bit of warmth as I recall eating whole roasted potatoes like this, outside, with my grandparents, Memaw and Pepaw, on their farm near Fayetteville, Tennessee. I had a dented metal bat that I took everywhere.
Martin starts away from the stadium site, leading us along the Embarcadero towards the Ferry Terminal. He says, “Something weird seems to have happened.”
“Yeah,” I agree. It’s like a dream. How can a stadium like that disappear? How can my apartment building disappear?
Velez says, “I shoulda asked that guy to use his phone!” and Velez starts jogging briskly after the cart, which is about 100 yards ahead of us.
“André!” Martin calls after him, but Velez doesn’t stop. We watch him close on the cart.
“What are the possibilities?” I ask Martin.
Martin answers the question with a question: “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I guess the stadium and the whole city could’ve fallen down. But in that case there would be rubble where the stadium was.”
A group of about a dozen men, women, and children approach us. They’re carrying bundles, framed paintings, a birdcage with five parrots, a child’s wagon loaded with hardback books. Every person is wearing three, four, five layers as a way of transporting their clothes. Three men are hauling three steamer trunks, each man carrying one end while the back end scrapes the ground past us.
Martin looks as confused as I am. I ask him, “Where are the plastic suitcases with wheels?”
He replies, “We seem to be somewhere else.”
An ancient car, all fenders and wooden-spoked wheels, chugs loudly past, driven by a man in goggles. Velez jogs back to us, huffing, informing us, “No one has a phone.”
Continuing towards the Ferry Building, soon the heat of the growing fire warms us. I’m thinking about Darla and our unborn baby boy. I just want to get back with her. I’m also thinking about the World Series and what a winning share—or even half a share—of the players’ pool of World Series money would mean: a new house, a vacation condo in Panama City on the Redneck Riviera, lots of nice stuff.
At the side of the Ferry Building, Martin borrows a knife from a fruit vendor who’s been waiting in vain for his delivery of apples, pears, and bananas from Oakland. Martin slices our burlap potato sack into sections. In the bottom section of the sack he cuts holes big enough for legs, and creates what looks to me like a burlap diaper. The other two sections of sack are long strips. He winds one of the strips around his mid-section. Velez takes the diaper. I wind the remaining strip around me. People rushing by with expressions of worry and fear glance, but do not register, us burlap-clad men.
Velez goes up to a short man with greased hair who stands before a stall of boxes of salmon on ice. “I’m André Velez the ballplayer. Can I borrow your phone?”
The man sneers, “Get outta here, boy.” The short man grabs the shirt of his partner, aims his thumb at Velez, and makes a comment in Sicilian. Both men laugh at Velez. The second one waves the back of his hand at Velez. “Shoo away. No phone. Hahahhaa!”
The short one asks Velez, “You carry fish?”
“What do you mean?” Velez replies.
The shorter one slaps the side of a box of salmon-on-ice. “We take fish to Oakland. This”—indicating the increasing fire—“no good. You carry to boat. Two cents itch box.”
Amused by the idea of being offered two cents for anything, Velez bestows a smile on them, asking, “You know who I am?”
The little one says, “Yeah. You big nigger.”
Velez’s body tenses. “What did you say?!”
The larger fisherman replies, “He say, ‘You big nigger!’”
Lunging across the fish, Velez grabs each man’s collar and Velez twists his hands hard, choking them. They croak “fung-oo!” “moul-en-yan!” as their limbs flail, and they are quickly surrounded by other stall keepers screaming at Velez and punching his back and arms. Martin jumps in, pulling Velez off, like in a baseball fight. I’m watching, shocked that people would call Velez “nigger.” I haven’t heard that word since college when some moronic fraternity brothers used it. But also, Velez is from Los Angeles, California; I know that his father—who was a pro baseball player—might be partly Mexican and his mother was a model from Sweden. He doesn’t look black at all—to me.
Velez twists his wrists harder, and both sets of fishermen’s eyes bulge. With Martin and a dozen stall keepers on him, Velez steps back. To Martin, Velez asks, “You hear what those assholes called me?!”
Martin leads us out of the Ferry Building and up Market Street. I gaze at the clusters of dazed San Franciscans—women in big skirts, men gawking at half-collapsed buildings. There’s a dirty newspaper on the ground. I pick it up and look at the date printed at the top: April 16, 1906.
1906. The 1906 earthquake. I am numb with the thought that we’ve been transported from one earthquake to another. I blurt out to Martin and Velez, “the 1906 earthquake! This is it!” Martin nods, understanding the concept in all of its nasty ramifications. Velez looks at me, his face scrunched up. He asks, “How come no one has a phone?”
I tell him, “We’re in 1906.”
He hears me, but his expression does not change. I glance at the newspaper: There’s an article about the Hech Hechy reservoir dam. There’s an article about three “Negroes” lynched outside of Leeton, New Glory. What’s New Glory? I fold up the newspaper but don’t have any pockets in which to stuff it.
And I realize I’m not a Major Leaguer anymore. Heck, neither is the great André Velez. Bucky Martin isn’t managing the Giants. We’re not in the middle of the World Series. What are we except nearly-naked men, with zero money, dressed in strips of burlap? I mutter, “God damn it!” Now I’m mad at myself because I’m not one to use the Lord’s name in vain. It’s not Christian and I need Him more than ever. I ask Martin, “How are we gonna get back to our time?”
Martin stops. We are standing in the middle of Market Street. To the right, at Sansome Street, a block of buildings blazes. Martin’s eyelids flutter as he’s thinking about our situation, and he replies, “I have no idea whatsoever.”
Velez watches as firemen clamp a hose to a fireplug. They loosen bolts on the fireplug, and wait for water to fill their hose. But the long hose remains limp as only a trickle of water emerges from the nozzle. We stare up at the massive plumes of flame and billowing smoke.
“Out of the way!” a policeman barks at us.
We move up Market Street. Velez looks over his shoulder at Martin and Velez says, “How come no one recognizes me?”
I’m gritting my teeth, thinking about my thousands of hours of infield practice, my countless bleeding blisters from hitting practice. Travel teams, high school, college, three-plus years of minor league ball—I’ve taken, perhaps, a million batting practice cuts, zoning in, perfecting my swing. I woke up at dawn to work out. I went to bed at a decent time of night. How many parties did I turn down? And where’s Darla?
I lift a brick off the street and hurl it at a burning building. The brick smashes against the half-collapsed structure, which seems to shudder. I pick up another brick and fling it at the fire, screaming, “God damn!” I hurl another. Another. Another.
“Stop it, man!” Velez admonishes me. “Let’s go to the Fairmont. They know me there. They’ll give us rooms. Even you.”
“We don’t have any money,” Martin notes.
“I put my out-of-town people there all the time,” Velez replies, “I don’t need money there!”
We walk up steep California Street, and I’m wiping tears as I’m thinking about having lost my entire life in what apparently is a weird flick of time travel. The curved roofs and delicate wooden buildings of Chinatown are ablaze. I stride up next to Martin, “You think we’re the first ones to ever do this?”
“Do what?” Martin asks, but I think he knows what I’m talking about.
His gait slows as we make the part of Grant Street where it cuts across California. He asks, “You think we’re in 1906?”
“I can’t think of any other explanation. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening to anyone else.” Martin slowly nods his head and presses up California Street as its steepness continues. Breathing deeply with a bit of exertion from the climb, halfway up the block we pause next to a pile of framed family paintings, silver jugs, silverware boxes, a stained-glass vase, a child’s rocking chair. The nearest door opens and a woman in a black dress braces the door with her foot while she yanks on a rolled rug. Her hair, which was piled atop her head in a neat bun, comes loose and spills over a shoulder. The sight of us nearly-naked men frightens her and seems to be more shocking than the encroaching fire. She recoils against the door as Velez approaches, and he lifts the rug to the sidewalk, his back and arm muscles rippling. Regaining command of her language, the woman says, “There’s more inside. Five dollars per man.”
Martin, Velez, and I look at each other. Velez says, “Lady, I’m worth over half a billion dollars.”
GOING, GOING, GONE
By Steve Hermanos
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