Sunday, April 25, 2010

I Don't Know Why I Do It, But I Do

That's a poor photographic souvenir from my time spent playing softball with Ronnie Goddamn's ragged beer league club in Orlando. It'll have to serve, though, and every one of the grainy, out-of-focus snapshots I retain from those few months seem at the very least metaphorically apt.

As you can see, Ronnie Goddamn's softball team often eschewed shirts, caps, and even footwear. Most of the guys had long hair, and a bong would usually be stashed in with the gear (such as it was). Some of the guys would use truncated wooden bats that their (mostly) illegitimate children had received as bat day giveaways at Tinker Field, at the time the spring training headquarters of the Minnesota Twins, and home as well to the Orlando Twins, the big league team's Southern League affiliate (I was, I suppose I should mention, then working as a groundskeeper at that same complex).

Ronnie's team was called Cheap Smokes, and it played in what passed for a fairly legitimate league in Orlando in the mid-eighties. Many of the other teams wore actual uniforms, which I found as ridiculous as the decidedly informal get-ups favored by Cheap Smokes.

I wasn't a particularly good fit on the team, but I could hit a little bit, and run down balls in center field, and Ronnie lived in the basement of the shabby side-by-side duplex I was renting on Mariposa Avenue right in the middle of Orlando, and, after seeing I had a decent mitt, he'd badgered me into joining.

Obviously, Ronnie Goddamn wasn't the man's real name, but that's all I ever heard anyone call him. I didn't know anybody in Orlando in those days, and though Ronnie often kept me up all night blasting Deep Purple at maximum volume and hitting beer bottles off a tee with a Lance Parrish model Louisville Slugger down there in the basement, I did sort of get a kick out of him.

When I'd first encountered Ronnie he was out in the front yard, and had removed a wheel from the Impala that was up on blocks in the carport. This wheel he had filled with charcoal, and he was barbecuing chicken in a metal gym basket he'd stolen from the YMCA. He'd filled the basket with chicken, poured over it a bottle of some store brand barbecue sauce, and set the whole thing down in the coals to cook. Every once in awhile he'd shake the basket or move the chicken around with a rusty garden trowel. I thought this was pretty ingenious, even as I passed on an offer to partake of the chicken.

I think Ronnie Goddamn won me over that day with his clear-eyed tale of woe. He was sporting a nasty shiner and a split lip, and he told me without a trace of self-pity or rancor that his wife's old man --who was "seventy-three fucking years old"-- had "kicked the living shit" out of him for violating a restraining order.

"Seventy-three year old and still kicking ass," Ronnie said (with obvious admiration, I might add). "Imagine that."

At any rate, every Thursday night I'd come home from work and drive Ronnie (who had a suspended license) to the Cheap Smokes games. We generally lost, but, given the overt hostility of almost every opposing team (They'd yell stuff like, "Hey, Sweet Home Alabama, I thought you dickweeds all got killed in a plane crash"), and frequent gratuitously rough collisions at home plate, it seemed to me that the majority of our losses counted as moral victories.

To be perfectly honest with you, I had no idea what I was doing in Orlando. I was crazy about baseball, tired of Midwest winters, and one day I had just packed a couple bags and hopped on a Greyhound for Orlando, hoping to find work and take in Spring Training baseball, which was still six weeks away. One of the first ads I saw in the newspaper was for a groundskeeper at Tinker Field, and right away I rode my bike out there and filled out an application. That was the only time in my life I've lied on a job application, but this seemed like such a stroke of fate that I was determined to get the job, and certain I would get it.

Which I did, of course. And since I was the low man in the pecking order I spent most of my time dragging the practice infields, mowing the grass, and keeping the bullpen tidy and the mound in good shape. It was pretty easy work, and I got to stand around a lot and watch baseball in the sun.

When I wasn't at the ballpark or playing softball, I'd sit out on the patio of my duplex, drinking quarts of beer from the 7-11 up the block and becoming daily more infatuated with my next door neighbor, a lanky, impossibly toned, six-foot-tall blond woman named Sundra Nillsen. Sundra had a high jump pit set up in our backyard, very professional looking, and she seemed to spend hours every day launching herself over the bar. I was no expert, and she seldom deigned to speak to me in the initial stages of our acquaintance, but it seemed to me she was jumping higher every week, and rare were the times when I saw the bar wobble, let alone fall.

Sometimes when I was feeling a bit stalkerish I would retire to my bedroom, which had a window facing the backyard, and I would sit on the edge of my bed watching her, in her tank top, nylon shorts, and track shoes, sail upside down through the falling darkness. Because of the way my window was positioned in relation to my bed I could only see her airborne body rising and falling, again and again, but this was somehow all the more thrilling.

This, as I mentioned, was the eighties, and --outside of certain subcultures (The Cheap Smokes roster being one such, although I'm not sure that, in and of itself, the team represented a subculture)-- you seldom saw elaborately tattooed people, particularly beautiful, athletic women. Sundra, however, had a number of distinctive and exotic tattoos. For a number of weeks this fact drove me nuts, as, given my reserve and halfhearted attempts at maintaining respectful distance, I couldn't ascertain what they represented.

For quite some time I couldn't even get Sundra to make eye contact with me, let alone engage in a conversation. Eventually, however, she warmed to me, although I have no idea why. For a few weeks we had exchanged what can only be called very small talk, and then one day, when I was out in the yard trying to teach myself how to juggle baseballs, she came out and handed me a piece of paper on which were typed some words.

"Be honest and tell me what you think of that," she said. "It's a personal ad."

I read the text: "Looking for someone to help me explore my wild side. Musicians, artists, or poets welcome. Money not an issue. No commitments. Long hair and tattoos a plus."

I'll admit that I was a bit taken aback by this unexpected intimacy, and I suppose that I blushed.

"Ronnie Goddamn's probably got some friends he could hook you up with," I said.

"Don't be a smart ass," she said. "I don't want any dumb shits."

I shrugged. "Who knows?" I said. "I'm not sure you're going to find many poets or artists in Orlando, but --what the hell-- send it up the flag pole and see if anybody salutes it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she said.

"It's a joke, sort of," I said. "I think it's a quote from Lemmy of Motorhead. What I meant was, give it a try."

"Thanks," she said, took the paper from me, and disappeared back into her apartment.

A couple weeks later I ran into Sundra when I was coming home and she was sitting on the porch in her high-jumping outfit. She told me she'd had a traumatic weekend.

"How so?" I asked.

"I was arrested over at Lake Eola," she said.

"Arrested for what?"

"Fucking," she said.

"Wow," I think I said, or something equally inept. "That's a bummer."

"A slap on the wrist," she said, "but it's embarrassing. I keep looking in the Sentinel to see if it will actually qualify as news."

"I doubt it," I said, although I really had no idea.

Since Sundra seemed beleaguered, and to have let down her guard, I took the opportunity to ask about her tattoos.

She stood up without hesitation, turned around, and pulled up her shirt a bit to reveal an elaborate and colorful map stretched across the small of her back just above her waistband.

"That's Greenland," she said. "Never been there, but it's a place I dream about."

Next she pulled her shirt all the way up in the back to display a sentence etched between her shoulder blades in what looked like German.

"It's Rilke," she said.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"'All you undisturbed cities, haven't you ever longed for the enemy?'"

I had no idea what to make of that, but by this time she was raising her left arm and running her finger along black braids of musical notes that ran from just above her elbow to the furthest valley of her bicep.

"And that?" I asked.

"It's a partial transcription of Bill Evans' 'Waltz for Debbie,'" she said. I indicated that I was unfamiliar with the piece (or, for that matter, the musician).

"Find it," she said. "You'll like it, and I think you'll discover that women dig it."

"Not to change the subject," I said, "but how high can you jump?"

"High," she said. "But not yet high enough."

Spring Training had wrapped up by this time, and the Twins had gone back north. The AA club took over Tinker Field and began preparing in earnest for its season, while on the other adjacent diamonds the rookie league and instructional league players had assembled for long days of ridiculously repetitive drills and conditioning. This also made for very long days for me, and I would often leave the apartment at dawn and get home after dark.

Then one day in the middle of April, Ronnie Goddamn was arrested for aggravated battery, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, driving with a suspended license while intoxicated, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault on an officer. I read about this in the Orlando Sentinel a couple days before some of the Cheap Smokes guys came by with a truck to get Ronnie's stuff. Word was, they said, Ronnie was going to go away for a stretch this time.

Two days later I came home and found a typewritten note from Sundra on my front door. "Off to Europe to jump," she'd typed. "It was good to find a nice guy in such a shithole. You should go back to wherever you belong and write poetry and find a girl to sleep with. Use a condom, and try not to become just another dumbass."

With two of three units empty, my landlord decided to take the opportunity to remodel the building into a single-family dwelling and put it on the market, and he gave me a thirty-day notice.

Which was fine, really. I'd had my numb adventure, was developing a drinking problem, and despised Orlando. I announced I was leaving at work, had a debauched going-away party at Church Street Station, and the morning of my eviction was headed back north in a 1973 Toyota Celica I'd bought for a thousand bucks from one of the Cheap Smokes guys.

Many years later I was in Chicago on business and was channel surfing late at night in my hotel room when I stumbled across the broadcast of an international indoor track meet somewhere in (I think) Asia. And there was Sundra, still jumping, her blond hair grown longer and pulled back in a flopping ponytail. I watched her clear six feet-four inches with just a wobble of the bar. They showed this jump again in slow motion, and for those few breathtaking moments I was allowed to actually watch her sail through the air in exactly the way --her head thrown back almost ecstatically and her body an elegant, suspended wave-- and at the exact same hypnotic speed as she had done countless times in my dreams. And then the fuckers cut away to a hurdles race, and then the shot put, and the pole vault, and a bunch of other bullshit, and though I turned off the lights, took off all my clothes, and sat up until I could no longer hold my eyes open, I never saw her jump again.


  1. Well, this blows me away. It's hard to write memoir that feels right, like this -- that finds the poignancy and urgency of our experiences, without making them into a little shrine. You were lucky to be the straight man in this recollection -- less strange than the people you were running into. Gives the reader something to hold onto. Sundra sounds like a goddess, and a pretty good one.

  2. Coach, from the vantage point of your bedroom you've described Sundra's body tumbling upside down. Does this mean she's using the Fosbury flop, or is there some other technique you're working on together?

  3. This piece dazzled me morning. It's been with me all day.