ONLY A GAME by Peter Nolan Smith

Argentina beat West Germany in the 1986 World Cup of Football. The victors reached the finals thanks to an unexpected quarter-final victory over England. The signature memory of that grudge match was an illegal score off the fist of striker Diego Maradona. The media labeled the controversial goal ‘the Hand of God’. Few people in the USA were aware of this infamous goal. Soccer was a sport for foreigners.

Our national pastime was baseball and that summer the two best teams in the majors were the New York Mets and my beloved Boston Red Sox. The Damn Yankees with a veteran lineup of Tommy John, Joe Niekro, Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey, and Rickey Henderson struggled to catch the Bosox, but by mid-July Mets fans crowed with pride about the team in Shea Stadium and fans flocked to Queens in the thousands to do the ‘wave’, making every game was a sell-out.

Later in the month a madman attacked passengers on the Staten Island Ferry. NYPD arrested him without a shot. The murderer was incarcerated at Bellevue Hospital. My friend was charged with medicating the Zorro of mayhem. Doctor Bob showed me the cocktail of drugs suppressing his patient. They amounted to a lethal dose for any other human being.

Other than that New York was feeling good about itself.

The summer had been kicked off by the re-opening of the Statute of Liberty on the 4th of July. The glorious evening of fireworks had set the harbor aglow for the city had survived the threat of bankruptcy and President Reagan announced from the deck of the USS JFK.

“Let the celebration begin.”

His version of the good times were bankrolled by a liberated Wall Street generating billions of dollars of new wealth. Happiness could not be bought, but it could be rented by the nouveau riche of the stock market and Reagan’s ‘trickle down’ theory revitalized the nightlife of Manhattan. Clubs and bars opened throughout Manhattan catering to the various cliques.

While discos dominated the dance scene, none of them generated the thrill of Studio 54 and only a few downtown clubs came close to re-creating the magic of the 70s.

Our club, The Milk Bar on 7th Avenue, dominated the night from 2am to 4am.

The triangular triplex’s decor had been designed by the legendary Arthur Weinstein and his wife to replicate the futuristic bar frequented by Alex and his sociopathic droogs from the movie CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The white plastic walls were backlit by color-gel lamps.

Sometimes red, other times pink.

Never yellow.

The plastic furnishings were a smooth throwback to the hip 60s.

Our door policy was simple.

“I don’t wanna see any suits or ties.” Arthur told me at the door. “No Wall Street at all.”

“Not a problem.” As doorman I did as I was told, although a $100 cuffed into my palm allowed the occasional exception.

Griffbag the DJ played an eclectic musical melange of Art of Noise, Michael Jackson, James Brown, the Cure, Run D.M.C./Aerosmith, Berlin, Bananarama, Pet Shop Boys, Run DMC mixed with 50s R%B, 60s garage, 70s punk and disco, and 80s new wave, rap, and pop.

Paul McCartney, John “Cougar” Melloncamp or Lionel Richie were banned from the turntables.

Dancing was forbidden by the cabaret laws of the State, but the West Village PD ignored toe-tapping and soul-grinding in our basement lounge. They liked us. Arthur spoke their language.

Most nightclubs were hell for anyone living near them, but the Milk Bar was good to its neighbors.

The club had been sound-proofed by experts. Rejects were dispersed before they congealed into an unruly crowd. There were no fights in the street. Customers were asked to be quiet upon exiting the club. Cops got in free as long as they were off-duty. Neighbors were comped two free drinks a night and we were nice to the bridge and tunnel crowd.

Griffbag liked girls with big hair.

Everyone had a good time and everyone consisted of models, ballerinas, artists, rappers, film and TV crews, pro athletes, doctors and nurses from St. Vincent, restaurant staff from near-by restaurants, and neighbor people.

The dress code was the color black.

The blacker the better, but the color had nothing to do with the bar’s popularity.

The Milk Bar had a reputation for luck. Men and women, women and women, and men and men left the club together. Couples fell in love. Drinkers got drunk. People had fun.

There was a cover on the weekend.

I collected the money at the door and only a little stuck in my pocket. Arthur and the younger owner trusted my greed. Scottie and I went back to the Arthur’s Jefferson Theater and the mythic after-hour club had been all about coining cash.

My partner at the door was a giant Haitian bouncer.

Every night Big Joel and I gazed at the Empire State Building to watch the shutting of the lights. Neither of us caught the turn-off moment. We were too busy taking care of business.

The Milk Bar escaped the attention of the media. We operated under the radar. Word-of-mouth handled the Milk Bar’s PR. Our max capacity was 250 and we rarely topped 300, for the fire marshals enforced that life-or-death restriction without exception and the manager insisted on obeying their unspoken edict.

Kilmer was their friend. There was no reason to push for an excess of success. None of us were greedy.

With the neighbors, police, and fire on our side The Milk Bar had a strong run throughout the summer, but we weren’t loved by everyone.

O’Sheas farther up 7th Avenue had been serving drinks to the artists and locals since the 50s. Museum-class paintings hung on the wall. Famous writers had carved their names on the walls. Faithful regulars were granted reserved stools, but the new crowd of Wall Street bankers and lawyers had invaded the legendary tavern like a flock of crows picking over the bones of a battlefield. They shouted to each other about million-dollar deals. Their ties hung halfway down their chest. I wouldn’t have let one of them into the Milk Bar.

Five top-of-the-line Sonys TVs hung over the long wooden bar. The expansive projection screens featured sports and more sports. The good-looking bartenders were ex-college jocks. The attractive night waitresses worked days as aspiring models and actresses.

It was a formula for printing money, but the longtime owner resented our presence. The Milk Bar had been hurting his till and Old Jim was saying things about us. None of them were good and only some of which was true.

“Fuck em,” Arthur said to Scottie one July evening before opening for the night. “They’ll be here long after we’re gone.”

“I don’t like bad blood.” Scottie was Arthur’s best friend. He usually followed the older New Yorker’s lead.

“So don’t drink it.”

“I’m going to talk to them.”

“About what?” Arthur was an expert at letting people stew in their own sauce, but a few evening.

“Baseball.”

“No, about live and let live.”

“Suit yourself, but don’t tell me later that I told you so.”

Two nights later Scottie and I walked over O’Sheas. A drizzle in the 70s gave a chill to the air. Our antagonist’s bar was crowded with Yankee fans.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I never drank at O”Sheas. My team was the Red Sox.

“It’s worth a try.” We entered the bar and took a seat at the bar.

Robert Palmer’s ADDICTED TO LOVE was on the sound system. Their softball team was celebrating a victory in the dining room. The TVs showed the Yankees playing the Os. Not a single TV was turned to the Mets. We ordered cheeseburgers, which NEW YORK magazine had called the best in the neighborhood. I ate mine in less than ten minutes.

“What do you think?” Scottie signaled the blonde bartender for the bill.

“The cheese was barely melted.” I favored McBell’s on 6th Avenue or the Corner Bistro. “And the meat tasted of nothing.”

“The reviewer must have an open tab here.” Scottie took out a twenty and told the square-jawed bartender in the Hawaiian shirt to keep the change.

“Is Old Jim around?”

“Who’s asking?” the young man asked with an aggressive tone.

O’Sheas was a $200/night gig. The suits and ties tipped heavy to make people not hate them. Good-paying jobs were hard to find for struggling male models, ever since the hustler’s block on 53rd and 3rd had been closed because of AIDS.

“Tell him the owner of the Milk Bar.” The Charles Manson look-a-like smiled with disarming charm. “Just wanted to say hello.”

“Sure.” His sneer showed that he had taken acting lessons. The depth of his expression suggested his teacher was a mime.

The bartender motioned to a slim blonde waitress and whispered in her ear, then attended to his bar. The customers were two deep. I recognized a number of faces. They drank at both bars.

“Here he comes.” Scottie spotted the waitress leading a beer-gutted man in his late-30s to the bar.

Old Jim introduced himself with a firm shake. The grip was a little too strong for my tastes.

“What can I do for you boys?” The mustached owner drawled the word ‘boys’ with a derogatory insinuation. Old Jim was a cracker from way back beyond Peckerwood City.

“We wanted to come over and say hello. Let you know that anyone working here gets in for free.” Scottie wasn’t offering them free drinks. O’Sheas had a huge staff.

“That’s mighty white of you, but my people don’t frequent pick-up joints and drug dens.” Old Jim was several inches taller than me and stared down into my eyes, twirling the tip of his waxed mustache. “Fag bars either.”

“Really?” At 5-11 I weighed 185. Most of mine was muscle. I played streetball five times a week in Tompkins Square Park. Old Jim had a soft gut.

“Fags aren’t allowed in here either.”

The West Village was the wrong neighborhood to say ‘fag’.

I had lost more than a few friends to AIDS.

Two of the softball players quickly stood behind the owner. They weren’t twins other than in size and weight. 6-2 and 195. I figured them for Diversion 2 football benchwarmers and slid off my stool.

“Slow down, Rudie.” Scottie grabbed my arm. He considered brawling for fools and hated my temper. The Milk Bar’s owner turned to Old Jim. “I’m sorry if we got off to a bad start.”

“Don’t be sorry about anything. I know your history.”

Internal Affairs had raided the Jefferson and the FBI had closed the Untercontinental as part of an investigation into police corruption.

“I got nothing to hide.” Scottie dropped off his stool. He stood a solid 5-9. His nose had been broken as a kid. Boxing was his sport, not baseball.

“Midgets rarely do.” Old Jim confirmed that bridging this gap was a lost cause.

“Midget?” Scottie was born in New York and he had to say something to show that no one threw his father’s son out of a bar. “Good luck with your softball team. They are good-looking boys.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Old Jim’s face tinted red at the contrary insinuation.

“Nothing.” Scottie pointed to the numerous softball trophies on the wall. “Looks like you’ve been lucky over the years.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it.”

“If you say so.” My boss turned to walk out of the bar. I had his back.

“You think your lowlife bar can beat us?” Old Jim fondled his mustache. It was an annoying habit.

Scottie looked over his shoulder with a smile that said ‘fuck you’.

“Only one way to find out. There’s a park next to the bar.” The field had real grass. The base paths were at least 80% dirt. The right-field fence was at most 150 feet from the plate. Deep left was no more than 200.

“Jimmie Walker Park is our home field.” Old Jim hefted his chest like a rooster ready to fart dust. “So you dopefiends want a baseball game?”

“It’s only a game.” Scottie shook his head with a laugh.

“It’s never only a game to us.” Old Jim was dead serious.

“We’ll flip a coin for last bats.” Scottie took out a quarter and flipped the coin in the air. “Call it.”

“Heads.” Old Jim leaned forward to watch the result. His nose was red from drink. I hoped that we could get the old sot to pitch.

“Tails.” Scottie showed the coin. Old Jim plucked the quarter out of his palm. Scottie snatched it back with the speed of a Sugar Ray Leonard jab. “Got a heads and a tails. You get to set the date.”

“Teams are staff and customers only.” Old Jim had his rules. “And no ringers.”

“Whatever you say.” Scottie handed Old Jim an invite for an Elle Modeling party. “Call me at that number. We’ll be ready whenever you are.”

Scottie and I walked out of O’Shea’s onto the sidewalk. Neither of us said a word until we were down the block.

“You know that they’re about the best team in the Village.” O’Sheas had a four-year winning streak going for them.

“And we’re the best bar.”

“I made up a team.”

“Let’s hear it.” Scottie hadn’t broken a sweat.

I named players by position; Arthur had pitched for St. John’s. Rick the Dick was at 1st. I couldn’t stand the low-level coke dealer, but he was 6-9and his wingspan was wide enough to catch any errant throws. Scottie could cover 2nd. Ray Wood from Park Avenue was a sure shot for short. The buck-toothed DJ, Griffbag, took the far corner, and Georg Rage had the arm to chuck home from centerfield. Tommie White Trash, our barback, was quick on his feet for left and Doctor Bob wouldn’t hurt us in right, plus he possessed a wondrous stash of magic from the hospital.

“And what about you?”

“I’m catcher, but we’re not a team.” Nine men on a field were nine men on a field.

“Art can be the manager.”

“He’s a little anarchistic for that role.”

Arthur believed in every man for himself as long as we worked together.

“You want to do it, because I certainly don’t.” Scottie was a firm follower of Arthur’s modus operandi.

“No.” I was no leader and I wasn’t much of a follower either.

“So we have a team versus the best team in the Village.” We stood on the sidewalk. The traffic on 7th Avenue was murderously fast. Half the cars bore Jersey plates. They were headed for the Holland Tunnel.

“You already said that. Don’t say it again.” Scottie bet on long shot. They paid better odds. “Anyone is beatable on a given night, plus we have a secret weapon.”

“We do?”

“Big Joel.” Scottie pointed to my 6-8 partner at the door of the Milk Bar. The Haitian giant was sitting on my Yamaha 650cc XS. It was my ride.

Big Joel had his arm draped around the mother of his baby. Darleen was the love of his life. All the other girls were merely practice.

“Big Joel is from Haiti. Just cause Rawlins wraps their baseballs there, doesn’t make him a ballplayer. You ever see him throw a ball?”

“No.” Scottie didn’t hang out after hours. He liked going home to the Chelsea Hotel. I couldn’t blame him. 14 hours a day at a club kill any desire for more.

“I have. It’s like he has a vodou zombie arm.”

One morning after work we sat in the park smoking a joint. A softball lay in the dirt. As we walked out of the baseball field, I underhanded it to Big Joel. He fumbled the toss with both hands and then tried to chuck it back to me. His throw barely made 30 feet.

At 6-8 he was a big man, but no baseball player.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to teach him how to swing a bat.” Scottie crossed the street through the rush of traffic. It was a very New Yorker thing to do.

“You have your work cut out for you.” I waited on the sidewalk until the ‘white man walking’ gave me the go. I was reckless, although not with cars versus flesh and bone.

Scottie was speaking with Big Joel. A broad smile beamed from his face.

“Man, we gonna play baseball.” He was as happy as a kid getting his first glove. “Scottie gonna make me Dee-H.”

“Do you know what DH is?” His girlfriend’s family had come from Port Au Prince two generations before Big Joel.

“Dee-Ate. Why that is the number 8 something?”

“Stupid.” Darleen was tough on her man. They fought at the front door in stiletto swift jabs of patois. Their language was French only in name.

Ten minutes later Kilmer the bar manager announced that O’Sheas had scheduled a softball game for a week from tonight.

Kalline, Tommie White Trash’s girlfriend, poured Arthur a vodka screwdriver. Her barmate, Sunny, was cutting up fruit for the bar with a sharp knife. They were both dressed like runaways from a biker gang; tight leather pants and Daisy Mae white cotton shirts tied above their midriff. This look earned them big tips.

“Against O’Sheas.”

“I told you not to go there.” Arthur was a die-hard Yankees fan.

Since I came from Boston neither of us talked baseball during the summer.

“I was just trying to be friendly,” Scottie swiftly explained the confrontation at O’Shea’s. The bar staff muttered swears upon hearing how Old Jim had insulted the Milk Bar.

“The cocksucker said all that?” Arthur took off his glass. The right-handed curve-baller didn’t care what Old Jim said about him. The scandal behind the Uncontinental had been published in the New York Times.

“Every word.” I was no snitch, but I wanted Arthur to know with whom we were dealing.

“I am who I am.” Arthur admitted to us. “But you ain’t me, so this beer-belly Buddha has a lot of balls to say anything. We’re gonna kick their ass one way or the other.”

“What’s the team?” Kalline demanded, suspecting the worst.

I ran down the roster. Everyone groaned with the mention of Rick the Dick.

“I know, I know, but he can cover the base like no one else.”

“And what about us?” Kalline narrowed her right eye, as if she were sighting a wild pig in the boghole. She came from a trailer park in the Everglades. They grew girls ‘gator tough’ out in the swamps. Kalline picked up the largest lemon on the bar.

“What us? This is a man on man game.”

“Really? Says who?” The skinny blonde wound up from the stretch.

“Shit.” I ducked and the lemon whizzed over where my head had been to smack into the wall. The light went out behind the plastic panel. Kalline had an arm.

“My father didn’t name me after Al Kaline for nothing.” She picked up another lemon.

“Girls get to play.” I raised my hands in surrender. The best player in my Maine hometown had been a girl. Sharleen had been banned from playing Little League. My father had fought for her right to wear a uniform, but Maine in the late 1950s was not ready for a girl on the bases. “Sorry for being so macho.”

“Macho is first nature for most men, which is why I love Tommie. He’s a pussy cat.”

Her reformed car thief sulked in the corner of the club. Nobody was lazier when there was nothing to do, but girls came to the bar to stare at him. The half-blood Sioux had a sullen kind of look like Paul Newman meets Cochise.

“Everyone gets to play.” Arthur declared putting on his leather jacket. The AC in the Milk Bar chilled the basement to arctic temperatures, which our clientele loved on a hot summer’s night.

“Even me.” Big Joel clomped down the stairs and lowered his head through the door. Darlene was right behind him. Her belly was larger than the last time I saw her. Big Joel had been at her again.

“Even you, big man.” Arthur was on the same mind as Scottie. “You’re going to be our secret weapon.”

“I’m not hitting no one with a machete.” He shook his head. I had yet to see him hurt anyone. Like Scottie and Arthur he was a man of peace. I was the troublemaker.

“You’re my special project.” Scottie lifted his hands together in a batting pose. “Let’s see your stance.”

Big Joel planted his size 15 feet on the floor and bent his butt out in imitation of Scottie. He swung his fists through the air. The whoosh of their passage would be scarier with a bat in his hands.

“I am going to kill the ball.”

His words sent shivers to the bottom of my feet. The girls cheered his threat. Arthur called for a practice tomorrow.

“Nothing early. Six ‘O’Clock. I expect everyone there.” He called us into a huddle. Scottie was embarrassed by the intimacy, but put his arms around me and Sunny.

Kalline led us in cheer.

“Milk Bar 1-2-3 Kick them in the knee.” She thrusted an Olive Oyl thin leg in the air. Her heel thumped into Big Joel’s head.

He fell to the floor in a half-daze.

Everyone laughed at him and he rose to his feet like Michael Spinks getting off the canvas after Mike Tyson had knocked him out in the 1st round.

It was going to be that kind of a game, because that was the kind of game at which we could beat O’Sheas.

Later that night Big Joel and I stared at the Empire State Building. The tower was shrouded by fog. The lights glowed through the mist. It was slow for a Saturday night, but the Milk Bar was against slow before midnight.

“You think I will be able to hit the ball?” Big Joel blew in his hands. 70s was winter weather in Haiti.

“It’s easy. The pitcher throws it under-handed. The ball can’t be traveling more than 50 miles per hour.” Tris Speaker had said that it was useless trying to explain successful hitting to anyone and I was far from a good batter.

“50? How fast you think I throw the ball.”

“20.” I changed the number seeing the hurt on his face and I lied to save his soul. “30. Maybe 40.”

“I like that speed better.”

I looked back at the Empire State Building. The lights were out.

People had heard about our game with O’Sheas and wished us luck in the upcoming game. They liked drinking at O”Sheas, but few of them cared for Old Jim. He was a piece of work.

My live-in guest Elena showed up at 2. The twenty-year old from Madrid had done three shifts at Billy’s A Go-Go. Her pocketbook was filled with crumpled $1 bills.

The raven-haired seductress danced a solo Apache for the late-comers at the bar.

Several men offered her money.

The Spanish girl rejected them for me.

We drove home on my motorcycle to East 10th Street.

In bed we pretended to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Each of us was too wicked to believe the lie longer than the dawn.

I had a hard time waking up the next day. My bedroom was as dark as midnight with drawn curtains. Elena wasn’t through with me either. It was almost 5pm by the time I crawled out of bed.

“Where are you going?” Elena stood with a sheet wrapped around her ballerina body. The early evening light bounced off the living room floor and she shield her sleepy eyes with a lazy hand.

“To baseball practice and then come back here.” I threw some water in my face and grabbed my baseball glove from the closet. The leather was stiff from disuse.

“Beesball?” Elena laughed aloud. “You never play beesball.”

“I am tonight.” I pounded my fist into the glove and swung my right arm over my head. Several shoulder muscles agreed with Elena and promised pain, if I pushed them too hard. I kissed the dancer on the lips. Hers were bruised from last night. Mine were just as sore. “I’ll see you later.”

“If I am not practicing dance.” She had a class next door in the art school. I could watch her dance from my rear window. Elena traced a finger down the side of my face. “I want to see you look at me.”

Shivers flashed through the marrow of my spine. Elena was getting under my skin. The slender was trouble, because being faithful to one man wasn’t in her gypsy blood.

The weather was a repeat of Saturday. Drizzle slicked the streets and drops of rain dotted the sidewalks. I arrived at James Walker Park expecting to be the only one there. I was surprised to find the whole crew. We were taking this game seriously.

Arthur pitched batting practice. I hit five balls off the fences. Georg snagged my grounders with ease and Rick the Dick snatched the ball with his condor wingspan. Scottie coached Big Joel with the bat. Kalline hit the ball where they ain’t on the field. Doctor Bob struggled with high flyballs. Kilmer and Ray Wood made out in the stands. Sunny had a bet that they were in love. She was so right that no one took her odds at 5-1.

By 7:30 Arthur called it quits. The doors of the Milk Bar opened at 8. I was glad to be off on Sundays. I headed back to my apartment and bought Chinese. I at on the window sill with a bowl on my lap. Elena swirled across the floor in school across the alley. She was a better show than TV.

For the next few evenings the Milk Bar team practiced on the ball field between other games. Arthur bargained for the time with free drinks to the teams scheduled to play. 30 minutes wasn’t much, but it was more productive that drinking at the bar.

On Thursday night the pseudo-twin bartenders from O’Sheas were scouting us. They laughed at Scottie’s batting lessons with Big Joel.

When I pointed them out to Arthur, he walked over to the pair with my partner. Big Joel’s vodou scowl sapped their humor and they fled the park.

“Milk Bar, Milk Bar.” The girls shouted from the dug-out.

Our game was in five days.

Georg and I rode uptown to catch an O’Sheas away game with an Upper West Side bar in Central Park. Both teams wore on spotless uniforms and cleats. The Milk Bar would be playing in sneakers.

Their curvy cheerleaders belonged in DEBBI DOES DALLAS. They almost looked professional. Old Jim walked over with three players behind him. They had bats on their shoulders.

I stood my ground.

“You’re the little runt’s sidewalk. Robin, Batman’s fag.”

That line got a good laugh from his players. I wasn’t thinking about a funny come-back, but grabbing a baseball and smacking his head into the outfield. I counted to 10 instead.

“What’s wrong? Can’t speak.” His hand went up to the mustache. Old Jim actually thought that the pussy-duster looked good on him.

“Nothing wrong.” I spoke soft and slow, eyeing the tallest of his team. A boot to his knee would put him on the permanent disabled list.

“I did a little research on your boss. Not the runt, but the real one. I read that he wore the wire against the police. A lot of them lost their jobs. In my book we can that a snitch.”

After the murderous reign of the Westies was broken up by the arrest of Jimmy Featherstone, a gang of twisted cops took over the Irish gang’s territory. The uniformed arm-breakers were involved in protection, loansharking, and robbery. Every bar and nightclub on the West Side donated to a weekly fund. They were not good people. Arthur did what he had to do. I didn’t have to make any excuses for him to a man with a silly mustache.

“You weren’t there.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“That you don’t know shit.”

A loud thonk broke the tension and Old Jim turned his head to the field. The ball was soaring in the air. It disappeared into the trees. O’Sheas was up 3-0.

“I know one thing, Robin. That boy played in the Cape Cod league. He can hit the hell out of the ball. What position are you playing?”

“Catcher.” My legs were no good for running after years of basketball on the city courts.

“Then Robin will have a good view of the game.” Old Jim cocked his head and returned to the field. One of his players pointed his finger at me. It meant ‘after the game’.

“Tough team.” Georg knew his baseball. We went to Mets games without tickets, since two of the Shea Stadium ushers were carte blanche regulars at the Milk Bar and one hand washed the other.

“You think we have a chance?”

Another thonk of the bat and the score was 4-0.

“On a scale from 1 to 100 with 100 being the best.” Georg could call pitches without seeing the catcher’s signals. “I have to give us a 5.”

“Don’t tell Arthur or Scottie or any of the girls about this.” They deserved to live in hope. Despair would come soon after the first pitch on Sunday. It was only three days away.

Friday and Saturday were peerless days of summer in the high 80s and sunny without a hint of autumn.

Arthur’s wife surprised us with tee-shirts and hats. They had numbers on the back. I grabbed # 4 for Bobby Orr. I was a Boston fan through and through.

That weekend the bar was packed with anyone who didn’t have a place in the Hamptons. Those people weren’t our crowd. The girls poured double-shots. Elena and her fellow dancers from Billy’s arrived in cheerleader outfits. Victory was a dream for tonight, but the agony of defeat loomed large for tomorrow.

The L was already on my permanent record.

Elena shook me awake. I didn’t remember coming home. My head felt like William Tell had missed the apple and the arrow was stuck in my forehead.

“What time is it.”

“5:30.” Elena was wearing her cheerleader outfit. Without make-up she passed for jail-bait. “You have to get up.”

“We’re not going to play in that.” I looked out the living room window.

Thunder was booming in homage to Rip Van Winkle’s bowler along the Hudson River and rain was slobbering down from a coal black sky.

“It will stop raining soon.”

“How do you know?” I had fought too many fights. Flexing my knuckles predicted the weather. No cracking indicated that Elena might be right.

“Because I feel it in my blood. Get dressed.” She threw my jeans and the Milk Bar tee-shirt on the bed.

Arguing with a gypsy was a losing proposition and I climbed out of bed. Elena was practicing her cheerleader routine to ROCK ME AMADEUS. She tapped her wrist. There was no watch, but I got the message.

I showered in three minutes. We were out the door in ten. The rain had lightened to a drizzle by the time we reached the West Village and the clouds cleared for the early evening sun, as we arrived at the park on Leroy Street. The clock tower of a nearby church rung six times.

It was game time.

O’Sheas had commandeered the home-field dugout. Their team resembled a casting call for a soap commercial. Each of them was better-looking that the other and a self-absorbed narcissism beamed from perfect teeth. Their cheering squad consisted of Stepford Wives versions of the boys on the field with lustrous Farrah Fawcett hair shining in the sunset light. The stands behind their dugout was packed with regulars, who waved signs saying GO O’SHEAS.

The Milk Bar was down the left field line.

Arthur had torn the sleeves from his tee-shirt. Ray-Bans hung off his nose. Sunny and Kalline had shredded their tee-shirts. They were bra-less. Arthur’s wife and very young daughter sat in the stands. Dahlia begged her mother to let her do the same to her shirt. Colleen said no.

Someone had to wear the pants in the family.

Elena kissed me and joined the girls from Billy’s a Go-Go to lead a cheer laced with curses.

High-fives greeted me into the dug-out.

Coolers of beer lined the wall. Kilmer was handing out ice-cold Heinekens to our supporters. Ray Wood was making sure none of them went to the O’Sheas backers. Georg was the only player with cleats. Griffbag had a boombox set up with speakers. He popped in ROCKAWAY BEACH by the Ramones.

“Oh, oh, here comes trouble.” Griffbag looked over my shoulder

Big Joel strode up to the end of the bench. A thick-ended bat lay over his shoulder. He wore a straw porkpie hat, dark glasses, and a blue denim shirt over the Milk Bar tee-shirt. The uniform was pure Ton Ton Macoute, the death squad of Papa Doc.

“Joel, what are you doing?”

“I’m being a secret weapon.” He glowered at the nearest O’Sheas player. The Calvin Klein model wannabe dropped his head to the ground. Big Joel laughed from his chest. “Vodou not voodoo. I’m Haitian, remember.”

I checked his outfit for dolls with pins. His girlfriend lifted her bag. There was no telling what Darleen was carrying in it.

“Heads up, boys and girls, it’s game time.” Arthur walked onto the field, after the referee from the Parks Department called for the captains. Old Bill met him at home plate. His mustache drooped in the humidity

“Visitors get the call.” The ref had been at our bar until closing. His eyes were a nice color red.

“What call?”

“Who bats first.”

“We’re the home team.” Old Bill whined in protest.

“This is Jimmy Walker Park. Beau James was my kind of mayor.” Arthur surveyed the park. “I don’t see your name anywhere.”

“You lost the coin toss the other night.” The ref turned to Arthur. “What you want?”

“We’ll bat last.”

“You heard the man.” The ref hiked his thumbed over his shoulder at Old Jim. “Get your batter up.

Our team scattered over the field.

I stood behind the plate and and pulled on the catcher’s mask. Arthur underhanded a few practice throws. They struck my mitt with force. He nodded to the ref and O’Shea’s 1st baseman came to home plate. It was the guy with the finger.

“Hello, Batman. Suck Batman’s dick lately?”

“Keep it clean.” The ref warned him and said to me, “And you don’t lose your temper. It’s only a game.”

Arthur’s pitch tweaked to the left or right and he sent the first batter down on two swings. The second batter popped up to Griffbag. The third batter swung at the first pitch. The ball screamed off his bat into centerfield. Georg caught it with both hands. He wasn’t a showboat.

It was our ups.

Kalline led off for the Milk Bar. Old Jim underestimated her. It wasn’t hard with her wearing a torn tee-shirt and black leather hotpants. She banged his first pitch into deep center and Kalline reached 2nd base standing.

“Milk Bar, Milk Bar.” Our crowd cheered in the stands.

“You’re next.” Arthur clapped my shoulder.

I picked up a bat designed for speed of the swing. I planted my feet in the dirt and studied the position of the defense. They were playing back and to the left. Someone had seen me hitting in practice and I adjusted my stance to hit into the rightfield gap.

The first pitch was a strike. The next two were called balls. I lined up a low toss and drove the ball between 1st and 2nd. The 1st baseman leapt to his right and snagged it by the tip of his glove. I was out.

Elena yelled something in Roma.

It wasn’t a love call.

“Way to go, Robin.” Old Jim punched his fist in the air.

“What’s with the Robin shit?” Arthur asked, taking the bat from my hand.

I explained in twenty words or less and Arthur mumbled, “Forget about it. We’ll make him pay somewhere down the line.”

Old Jim got Griffbag out on pitches and Tommie White Trash swung at the first pitch. It squibbed to short. He was out at first.

“I told you not to swing at the first pitch.” Kalline cursed him for not driving her home. She was tougher than she looked by a long shot.

“Keep it down. The score is still 0-0.” Arthur cautioned in the dug-out. “We got five more innings to go.”

We celebrated the score with beer. O’Sheas was playing straight. We took the field with beers in our hands. The temperature lingered in the high 80s and the evening air was muggy as a weightwatchers’ sauna.

The ball didn’t travel far off the bat, but Old Jim had spotted our weakness in right. Doctor Bob had finished a double shift on the psycho ward and his eyes were at half-mast.

They scored three runs in the top of the 2nd. The bases were loaded and their rally could have become a rout, but the their man on third tried to steal home. Georg peppered the ball to the plate and I tagged out the runner. Old Jim challenged the play, but the ref pointed to the black polish on the ball.

“Old Jim.” I tossed him the disputed ball.

“What?” He was playing with his mustache like it was a giant hair sprouting from his nostril.

“You ain’t no Rollie Fingers.” His mustache was a homage to Oakland’s ace reliever. “Wait till my next at bat.”

“Fuck you. Robin.”

“Nice language, loser.” I was under his skin and continued the verbal assault throughout the next two innings.

Arthur’s pitching kept us in the game, but they scored another run off a long shot to left. Rick the Dick saved the inning with a graceful gazelle leap off the bag to trap a sharply hit ball arcing down the rightfield line.

We returned to the dug-out with empties. Griffbag cued up AC/DC. Old Jim complained about the music. Sunny told him to shove it. Passers-by floated into the park and sat on the Milk Bar side. Free beer bought their loyalty. The cheerleaders from O’Sheas were glomming beer too. The night was sucking sweat from everyone with a vampirish thirst.

Sunny ran out a punt and Tommie swung on the very next pitch. The short bobbled the play and we had runners on the corners. Arthur came to the plate without taking off his glasses and pointed to the right-field fence.

“You think you’re the Babe.” Old Jim directed his outfield to shift to right.

“I’m a Yankee fan. I could be anyone. Maris, Jackson, or Bucky Dent.”

I groaned at the mention of that name, but Arthur caught them off-guard and hit a zinger over the 3rd baseman into left.

He really was a Yankee fanatic.

Sunny scored easily with Tommie and Arthur stuck on 2nd and 3rd. Scottie popped up to the catcher and Doctor Bob struck out.

“I’m shot.” He retired to the beer cooler.

Scottie signaled for Ray Wood to take Doctor Bob’s place in the next inning, as he stood in the batter’s box.

“Batman the runt.”Old Bill was feeling good about himself. No one had ever called him a bad name.

“Batting with the scoring run at the plate.” Scottie dug into the dirt and spit in his hands. He looked like he played the game every day. “Let’s see your stuff.”

The next two pitches were watched strikes, then Scottie fouled off three pitches. The count was full. Elena and her girls chanted, “Batman, Batman.”

Their outfits were wet with perspiration and everyone could see that none of them were wearing anything, but tattoos underneath their uniforms.

The next pitch was straight down the pike and Scottie connected the ball at the sweet of the bat. It missiled direct back at Old Jim. He put up his glove a little too late and the ball smacked him in the forehead. He dropped on his back and the ball fell to the ground right before the 2nd baseman. Tommie and Arthur crossed the plate and we were within one run.

4-3

Old Jim wasn’t the same after that. He walked Kalline and me, but Rick the Dick tried to be too much of a hero and the 3rd baseman caught a sky-high foul.

Still it had been a good inning.

Maybe too good, for the next was a debacle.

O’Sheas ran the batting order and we were down 9-3. Our bodies were sapped by exhaustion by the 4th inning final out. Big Joel said, “Now time for me to do magic.”

“Not yet.” Arthur was massaging his right shoulder.

“When, man, when?” His hands clenched the bat hard enough for sawdust to seethe from his grip.

“I’ll let you know.”

The ref called us to the bat. It was three up and three down with two innings left to play.

O’Sheas prepared to celebrate and the players came over to get some beers. Rick the Dick wasn’t going to give them spit, but Doctor Bob said, “I’m a doctor. These boys need some liquid or else they might get heat stroke. I have to obey my Hippocratic oath.”

“Bullshit.” Rick slammed his glove on the ground and walked out of the park to make a deal in Soho. He was the kind of asshole that nobody cared enough about other than Arthur.

“It takes all kinds.” Arthur handed the beers to the opposing players.

They thanked him, saying they would take it easy on us.

“Get away from those fags.” Old Jim yelled at the top of his lungs.

His players muttered under their breath and returned to their dug-out.

Arthur turned to Big Joel.

“Looks like it’s your time, big man.”

“Oh, man, I am going to kill that ball.” Big Joel strode to the plate.\

“Not yet. You have to bat in order.”

“Seys who?”

Scottie explained the rules to Big Joel. The Haitian didn’t take the news well. He broke the bat and stormed toward the ref. Darleen grabbed his arm and he stopped like a bull with its nose ring stuck on a stump. She waved her finger at his face and he sat on the bench. She winked at us and said, “Everything is going to be all right.”

We lucked out with a run in the 5th. Doctor Bob and Elena brought more beer to the O’Sheas dug-out.

Old Bill drank two. It was that hot.

I felt like the marrow had been sucked out of my bones, until Doctor Bob gave us a little cocktail.

“What’s in it?” President Reagan’s wife had been telling America to ‘Just Say No’. She was preaching to the wrong section of the choir, for we all sang alto.

“A little this and a little that.”

“Just what the doctor ordered.” Arthur nodded with appreciation. If he liked it, so would the rest of us.

We ran onto the field with a renewed spirit.

Old Jim wavered at the plate and popped up to me. The next two batters reached base, but Arthur caught the one from the Cape Cod league asleep at 1st and walked over to the bag to tag him out. The next at bat was the guy who pointed his finger at me. He slurred out something indecipherable and I looked over my shoulder to the ref.

“Too much beer.”

Arthur put him out of his misery in three pitches and the O”Sheas team lurched off the field.

Elena’s girls from the go-go bars put on a show to WALK THIS WAY by Run-DMC and I sidled up to Doctor Bob.

“What you put in their beer?” Poisoning was a felony.

“A little of this and a little of that. Just to blunt their edge.” Doctor Bob eyed the tall redhead from Billie’s A Go-Go. She beckoned to him with long fingers. “Nothing dangerous. They’ll live.”

“Will they finish this inning.”

“As long as you make it quick.”

And quick was how we scored our runs. Kalline bunted to the 3rd baseman. He slipped on the grass.

“Old Jim, anyone tell you that mustache is out of date.”

“Fuck you, Robin.”

“No, fuck you.”

I stroked a shot to centerfield. It was going out of the park until it hit a tree. The ref called it a ground-rule double.

I wasn’t Robin any more.

Ray Wood knocked in Kalline. Sunny was called out on strikes. Old Jim was basically throwing batting practice. Tommie hit the first home run of the game.

The score was 9-7.

Arthur and Scottie got on base.

With men on 1st and 2nd Big Joel approached to the plate.

Old Jim shook off his torpor and adrenalin surged through the rest of the team to disinter them from a zombie state for this final out.

“One out.” Old Jim called out from the mound, almost losing his balance.

“Big Joel.” I shouted from the dug-out. “This one is for your babies.”

Big Joel threw off the hat and glasses. He ripped the denim shirt from his chest. He wasn’t playing for Papa Doc, but the Milk Bar. Darleen screamed at him in patois. He was her Bondye and she was his Euzulie Freda. Griffbag put on BURNIN AND LOOTIN’. He didn’t have any Haitian mizik rasin.

“Easy batter.” The O’Sheas cheerleaders chanted in unison. “Him so big.”

I looked to Doctor Bob and he shook his head. No one was getting lucky with them tonight, unless the girls wanted to be lucky.

Old Jim regained his form. The ball zinged across the plate. Big Joel watched it without moving.

“Strike one.”

“Big Joel, just swing the bat.” Scottie shouted from the dugout.

“I know how to swing de bat.” Big Joel looked more like he was ready for a basketball tip-off and the next pitch was a repeat of the last.

“Strike two.”

The Milk Bar was down to one swing and Big Joel turned around to blow a kiss to Darleen.

“This one is for you.”

Old Bill threw the ball right down the pike. It was fast and Big Joel swung his bat.

No one saw the ball leave his bat. No one saw it clear the trees climbing over the buildings across the street. No one saw it land wherever it landed. It was like the Empire State Building turning out the lights. Something that happened whether you saw it or not.

We swarmed onto the field and drowned Big Joel with our bodies after he cross home plate.

Old Jim strode off the field in the same direction of Rick the Dick. Maybe they had the same appointment.

“Drinks at the Milk Bar.” Arthur shouted with his arms raised over his head.

“Half price.” Kilmer added, but nobody heard the blonde manager. It was a night for deaf ears.

The players from O’Sheas confronted Doctor Bob about the beers. They took the loss with a good heart. It wasn’t on their real record.

Kilmer and Ray Wood disappeared for an hour.

When they returned red-faced, we had the answer where.

Kalline and Sunny served double shots. Tommie drank straight bourbon. Griffbag spin SEX MACHINE by Sly Stone and James Brown back to back to back. Big Joel took Darleen home for the night. The bat went with him. Scottie and I toasted each other with tequila.

He wasn’t a drinker, so I downed them both. The police came downstairs in uniform to congratulate our victory. Two of them worked the door for me and let in everyone, even Wall Streeters, but only for a price. My cut was 30%.

Arthur sat in the back with his wife. He looked at us repressing a smile. Somehow the Damned Yankee fan had pulled out a miracle and I went over to him.

“Good win.”

“All wins are good and so are some of the losses. Now get back to having a good time, before I say something about your Red Sox.” He could be a hard man when it came to the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. That comment about Bucky Dent hadn’t been aimed at Old Jim, but me.

“Sure, Arthur, sure.”

He was the Prince of the Night, because Arthur understood not one game is only a game.

They all are just a game.

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