Tale of the Toppled Hurler: A Peter Hartwell Story
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2016 All rights reserved.
For full story to date, visit: https://escondidograpevine.com/a-the-tale-of-the-toppled-hurler-a-peter-hartwell-story/.
So far, the Boston Red Sox have lost a serious bid to be the World Champions of baseball for the first time in eighty-six years because their ace, on cruise control, keeping the New York Yankees scoreless through six innings; stronger, more accurate and deeply cunning as the game progressed. He then collapsed and was carted off the field to a hospital. He dies. Our narrator, the ace’s hometown weekly newspaper editor, escapes a kidnapper. He’s in New York City now on the way to lunch, the morning after a going-away party for fellow Hartsdalian and classmate Warren Wyndham, who is bound for the West Coast to hammer his best-selling novel into a hit movie. We pick up the action as Peter Hartwell, the country editor, checks in for lunch in Times Square.
There was only one stool left at the HoJo’s counter and I took it. It wobbled as I settled in. On my left was wallpaper with Simple Simon meeting the pie man, a steaming pie in the latter’s hands. Squeezed in on my right was a man who looked to be in his late twenties, dressed all in black and reading the Daily News. He had folded the paper into fourths the way they do in New York, especially on the subway.
A perky, curly-haired redhead in the turquoise and orange HoJo uniform, skirt just above the knees, took my order. I gazed at the image of the apple pie a la mode on the dessert menu while I waited. The ice cream, vanilla, oozed down the side of the pie, painting the apple filling in rich yellow tones.
“Red Sox Nation?” the man on my right said quietly, looking straight ahead.
“Red Sox Nation?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“The Willie Gee,” he said. “I ordered the same thing. Faux Willie, actually. Button mushrooms instead of chanterelles.”
My head turned with surprise that he knew the Willie diet in such detail.
He reached into the back pocket of his black Levis and pulled out a tattered hat in blue, the classic Boston “B” embossed in red above the visor. “I’d wear it now,” he said, “but I was raised that it’s impolite to keep your cap on in a restaurant, or indoors, period.”
“Not to mention inciting to riot,” I said.
“Any Yankee fan wants to mess with me, so be it,” he said. “If Bombers’ fans can parade their loyalty on the hats on their heads, so can I.”
Our Gees arrived, his just before mine, with fries on the side. We both had ordered Pepsi, too. Beyond an “mmm, this is good,” we dined in silence. Then my thoughts turned to the untimely death of Willie Gillante, my high school classmate, the incredibly talented toppled hurler. My eyes found a chunk of mushroom with a squish of orange cheese clinging on and I bit down. After a while, my counter mate pushed himself toward the back of his stool, picked the napkin from his lap, wiped his mouth, and raised up his Pepsi glass, as if to propose a toast.
“It’s about how you were brought up,” he began. “There are enough reasons all over the place to hate the Yankees….they’re gaudy, ostentatious, ugly, arrogant, smug….completely bad news. Bad news for the very game of baseball. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already.”
I nodded as I gnawed on a french fry.
“I know what you’re asking yourself, ” he said, taking a sip of his soda. ” You’re wondering how’d a rabid Red Sox fan end up having lunch in a tumbled-down HoJo’s in Times effin’ Square when it’s Willie Gee Weekend at Fenway?”
“Exactly,” I said.
He put the straw to his mouth and drained his drink, making bubbly sounds at the end. That caught the attention of our server, but he waved her off and reached for his untouched glass of ice water.
“I came here today to show my respect for the great Willie Gee on the eve of his memorial weekend,” he said. “Just like you. We pay homage by partaking of the dish named in his honor, even if it’s called the Broadway Double-Decker in New York.”
“So you’re catching the next train home?” I asked after a long sip of my soda.
“Train home?” he said, chuckling. “I live here now, Queens. Queens via Boston. I will be watching on TV. I have to be around for my Mom and my grandmother.”
Before I had a chance to ask him where his dad was, he continued: “No one serves the Willie with chanterelles, I don’t think,” he said. “I heard they’re delivered from his parents’ garden to the clubhouse for home games…and by messenger from Penn Station or the airport when he starts at Yankee Stadium. You know, they look just like the ones called Jack O’Lantern.”
“Jack O’Lantern?” I said.
“Flip side of the chanterelle. Inverse mirror. Shadow.”
“Wow,” I said, “the evil twin,” hugely impressed by this fan’s knowledge of the star’s eating habits.
“And you?” he asked me. “What are you doing here when you could be up there?”
So I told him how I was a reporter down from Cape Cod to wish a bon voyage to a local boy who’s become illustrious and was about to set off hooray for Hollywood.
“Warren Wyndham of Hartsdale, Mass.,” he said. “I read about in the Times.”
I mentioned, too, how Warren, Willie Gee and I were also members of the same graduating class at Hartsdale High School; not to mention Harry Hardcore, who I knew then as David Jenkins Jr. I put my sandwich down and held out my right fist. “Peter Hartwell,” I said.
Our fists bumped.
He stood up and we fist-bumped again. He left a tip on the counter, went to the register to pay his check, placed his cap firmly on his head, looked down the counter to catch my attention and touched the “B” for Boston above the bill. Then he was gone. I never did get a name.
I toyed with my fries and checked the time. I paid the bill, re-attached my pack, and stepped outside to watch the parade of people go by. Penn Station was about a half-mile away. The time flashing on the huge Reuters screen in Times Square gave me a whole hour to get there. The stock quotes rolled by with the time and, when I figured the lunch rush must have waned, I drifted over to 42nd Street and down toward the service alley on the chance that my old friend, Joel, the HoJo’s cook, had stepped out for a break.
It had been what, six months, since I’d seen him last? That was when I was in town for the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. convention. It was the same day that Russell rammed to a stop at the curb in my own Mustang and, after a brief foot chase, caught up to me and whisked me off to meet his compadre back in Massachusetts. The parley never occurred, for I’d managed to escape.
Joel was on the sidewalk, lighting up a cigarette. “ I just sat down at the counter next to a a rabid Red Sox fan, even though he lives in Queens,” I said. “We were both having the Willie Gee. Knows tons about mushrooms and the Willie Gee sandwich.”
“Sounds like a guy named Sunny. He’d always come in when the Red Sox were in town. I never saw him again after Willie died, though.”
Joel flicked his cigarette butt to the pavement and smothered it with his shoe. He reached under his apron and pulled the pack from his trouser pocket and tapped out a fresh one. He flipped it between his lips, curled his neck down, cupped his hands and lit it. When he came up to exhale, the smoke whipped northeast in the wind. I checked my watch.
“One word,” Joel said. “Buckner. That’s why I’m a Red Sox fan. Could no longer root for the Mets after the Buckner thing.”
“Buckner?” I said.
It was Bill Buckner’s bonehead fielding error that cost the Red Sox the World Series against the New York Mets in 1986. My stomach recoiled at the thought.
“Word is the Mets first-base coach was harassing him, and the umpire did nothing to stop it,” Joel said. “Believe it or not, and this is just what I heard, the coach was calling crossword puzzle clues out to Buckner while that wobbler rolled down to first.”
“The umps ignored it because they were in bed with the Mets?” I asked.
“It’s a theory,” Joel said.
I checked my watch again and saw I’d be skimming at this point to make my train. I held out my fist and Joel wiped his hand on his apron and bumped mine. “Peter,” I said. “Peter Hartwell, Hartsdale News.”
` “I remember.” he said.
Then I was off.
My plan was to be deposited at the Back Bay station and hop the T to Kenmore Square. I had a reservation at the Buckminster Hotel, where I’d shower and change. It was a routine stroll from there to the ballpark. The club had graciously supplied me a space in the back of the press box to wedge into. Any number of trains would get me from town back to the 128 station to retrieve my car after the last game on Memorial Day, Monday afternoon.
I climbed aboard and found a seat next to a window facing front near the cafe car. I secured my pack in the seat next to me and stretched my legs. I closed my eyes and silently chanted the mantra. “Omm Shanti; Omm Shanti.” Under I went, acknowledging my thoughts, picturing them as bubbles underwater, letting them rise to the surface and then pop, or fly high like balloons and disappear in the sky. It sounds like a cliche, I know, but the steady rhythm of the rails rocked me to sleep. I was roused only when the conductor called out my stop. I don’t even remember hearing any of the other destinations announced, such as New Haven or Providence or Route 128.
At Back Bay, I slung my pack onto my back again and set out on the five-block walk to the Hynes Center, where I’d hop the Green Line to Kenmore Square. Someone poked me in the back.
“Excuse me?” I said.
I turned around to be greeted with a sadistic smile worn by none other than my old friend Russell. His hand was in the hip pocket of his trademark tan leather jacket and a tight circle pressed out from there toward me, which I took to be the muzzle of his gun.
Bruce Kauffman was a longtime North County Times editor and writer with emphasis on business and sports. He now operates a writing consultancy and authors creative works. This is is from his latest effort, a work in progress, exclusively at The Grapevine. For more visit Oceanside Scribe.