By Thomas M. McDade
The Dodge’s radio didn’t work but enough sightseeing on Route 1. Elsa’s Lodge looked like it should be in the Alps. The Holiday Inn close by struck me as classy. Maybe a Boston, or visiting player, had reason to get a room. Some beauty who’d flirted from the box seats. I was 14, first trip to Boston with my Dad.
Just past Red Rock Hill where I’d hitchhiked to witness motorcycle scrambles, the car stalled. My Dad tried all his tricks but couldn’t get it going. I didn’t suggest hitching, feared hinting of my experience. My Dad stuck out his thumb and told about travelling that way his Army days. I followed suit. Being Sunday, not many cars and the ones using the road paid no attention. Did we look like a bad luck father / son bank robbing team on the lam? I liked that! We finally got a ride, a Chinese man, a race tracker my Dad knew from the Hitching Post Bar & Grille named Clarence Chen. Grey stubble of a beard and silver framed glasses, green snap brimmed cap and tweed jacket. His girlfriend spoke with an accent that I recognized as Russian from spy TV shows; a pretty and shapely woman. She wore her dark hair up, earrings were gold crosses; grey blouse was nicely tight, loose black skirt. My Dad told Clarence about our Fenway Park plans. Clarence wished he could give us a lift, even attend the game but he had other catfish to fry. He and his girlfriend were going to some club that didn’t obey the Blue Laws, he said. He invited us to join them, maybe someone there was on the way to Boston.
It was a shack of a building, weeds growing out of the gutters, some of them goldenrod, couple of pieces of beige aluminum siding missing, another half strip swaying in the breeze. Reminded me of the one near railroad tracks where a girl named Jill let me French kiss her, but she treated my hand as if it were a black widow spider. To make matters worse, I stepped on a rusty nail leaving, had to get a tetanus shot. Clarence knocked like a drummer in a band. The woman, named Sonia, clung to his arm. I remembered a kid in our Project using the expression, “A long, tall fizzy glass of soda water!” Yes sir, that was Sonia, without high heels even, full head over Clarence.
A guy wearing an Army fatigue jacket full of campaign medals answered the door. He had a bum leg and a facial tic. “Where you hail from?” he asked. “Butte Montana, and so do my friends,” answered Clarence. The man saluted us. The walls were paneled, a dartboard on one, hanging off a hunting knife. Not far away, a team photo of the 1958 Red Sox. Man, like to get my mitts on that baby. Maybe Clarence could arrange it. The bartender was rugged, wore a red bow tie. He gave me a glass of Coke without me even asking. He stretched his hand over the bar. “I’m Clutch. What do you go by?” “Tom,” I said, tried to give a strong squeeze. Maybe he was a mechanic at one time. I tried to sound grown up, asked him the name of his establishment. “No establishment as such kid, St. Sunday’s Chapel, changes through the week, tomorrow’s Sir Monday.” He had an anchor tattooed on the back of left hand “Butte, Montana” the right. I wondered if passwords changed, all over the U.S. map. I used the men’s room. A Playboy centerfold was pasted over the urinal and smiling at me. Her nipples were penny arcade buttons meant to press.
Clarence and Sonia sat in the one booth, side by side. Only way, newspapers stacked high on the other bench. Clutch brought them drinks on a tray he carried high on upstretched fingers. She took out a mirror, applied dark lipstick. She’d do that many times. My Dad ordered a Narragansett and a bag of State Line Potato Chips and a ginger ale for me. Then he picked up a pool stick and the balls started clicking. I made up something I thought was cool: the sound of barroom crickets. The television in the corner looked brand new, lot bigger screen than our second hand Emerson. A Hopalong Cassidy movie was in progress. Gabby Hayes was serving beans by a campfire. I hoped the hell Clutch would put on the Sox game. I figured my trip to Boston was kaput. What the heck, the Sox weren’t going to scram like the Dodgers and Giants.
After I heard a loud “Butte Montana,” a guy with a fishing hat, lures stuck all over sat next to me. He ordered a double peach brandy downed as if his family’s safety depended on it. After another, his sad story: he’d been a contestant on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. His lady partner from the audience was a L.A. lawyer. If one of them knew Latvia’s capital, they’d have won a barrel of money. “Riga, kid, don’t ever forget it. You can call me that. I deserve it. Never hire a mouthpiece who thinks the city is Vilnius.” He walked over to Clarence and after chatting a bit, gave him some cash. Riga and Sonia went through a door with two horseshoes hanging, one upside down, the other not, ends touching so they made an “O”. I didn’t hear any music so I knew they weren’t dancing in any way done in public! I’d read some stories in Ace and Dude magazines I found in the dump. I knew what was happening. My Dad continued solo on the pool table, didn’t faze him. I wondered why he didn’t mind me being here. Sonia came out first, returned to the booth. Riga had another double then played the jukebox, “Saginaw, Michigan” too many times for Clutch. He came out from behind the bar and yanked the cord. “Screw that son of a Saginaw fisherman, Riga.”
A well-dressed man also from the “Big Sky” state showed up, three-piece suit. Sonia led him away by the hand. He must have settled in advance. Although I’d never been to a wedding, it was like an open bar for me. I got off the ginger ale, moved to root beer. My mind put Sonia’s face on the playmate and put thoughts in my head of what is said to make a kid blind but really made him see clearly. Walking back, I didn’t worry about my rod-on, like at school after an interrupted fantasy, called on to stand and read. When the guy in the suit, vest unbuttoned and tie undone, returned, Sonia on his arm, he played pool with my Dad. First games just dollar bills dropped on Clarence’s table, then looked like fives and tens. Man, my Dad was sharp. I’d never seen him shoot pool. I was proud as hell. I’d played at the Boys’ Club but never did banks, up-and-downs and reverse English like him. The competition finally gave up. A cop was the next visitor. He shot some free losing pool with my Dad too, didn’t have to cough up any dough to take a stroll with Sonia.
Riga asked me if I planned to serve my country. “Gonna join the Navy after high school.”
“Ha, you’ll have a girl in every port! Here’s how they got me, kiddo.” He sang.
“Uncle Sam needs you, boy
I’m-a gonna cut your hair
ah-Take this rifle, kid
Gimme that gittar” yeah.
“Well, not actually, I play the accordion!” He laughed for himself and the audience in his head I guessed. I grinned and slapped my knee to be polite. Clarence came over asked how I was doing. He walked me to a spot on the wall where framed racetrack photos hung. He was holding the bridle of a horse, big smile on his face as well as the jockey’s. “That’s the best horse I ever owned and trained. I enjoy western movies so I named him Saloon. The filly in the other photo is Starrett, after the lady in Shane, best western ever.” I’m glad he didn’t ask me if I saw it, I had not. Maybe it would show up on TV. Four or five men came in before the ballgame. One of them had just finished playing softball, filthy from sliding. I could hear his spikes play the floor. I heard the roar of a motorcycle. A biker wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses joined the party. Sonia took them all for a ride then my Dad rolled them on the felt.
Riga gave me an elbow to stand for the National Anthem when the game came on TV and I did. I tried to concentrate on the game but the next Montana visitor was a priest who gave a sermon after drinking a large water glass of red wine. He claimed there was no such thing as sin because no one could drum up the intent necessary to qualify. He blessed us in Latin; then went in the back for Sonia to bless and save his jollies. His idea wouldn’t stand up against The Baltimore Catechism but a very handy piece of information I wouldn’t forget. Clutch whispered the priest wasn’t really clergy, flunked out of the seminary. “We call him Father Faker.” I couldn’t stop imagining Sonia working. I didn’t try praying her away like one nun preached. To make matters worse, the Sox weren’t doing well. In the fourth, Billy Goodman stroked a homer. He’d once played for Boston but now Chicago. I hated it when a former player came back to haunt. My hero Jackie Jensen started back but realized it was sadly long gone, stood watching with hand and glove on his hips. His wife was an Olympic diver I’d seen in Sport Magazine. Bet she’d look good over the urinal.
A skinny young woman, blonde, braless in a shirt that had “Dance On Me” scrawled on its back staggered in, had a tough time pronouncing “Montana.” She wore blue gym shorts. A couple of times, between suckers, she crawled up on the pool table, stood and danced with an invisible man, humming “Sea of Love.” Honest to God, she paid her money and went with Sonia. I’d overheard an older kid who didn’t live in our Project but hung around block nine say he’d seen a stag film with that kind of stuff. I wondered what he’d think of my building stock of stories.
Bottom eighth, Sammy White singled. Vic Wertz also, along the right field line moving White over to third. Pumpsie Green, first black player in Sox history, hit a ground single to center scoring Sammy, moving Wertz to second. The crowd went wild. Pumpsie tipped his hat. That was the only run for the Sox, mild threat in the ninth, defeated 3-1. Just as well that I wasn’t in the bleachers.
After a couple of more opportunities, Sonia looked very tired, hair mussed but she smiled at me. I hoped she’d get to take a good long hot bath. My Dad put the cue stick in the rack. Man, sure glad he hadn’t gone in back with her. How would a kid live with that? Would my feet ever step that way? Clarence handed my Dad a roll of money then drove us back to our Dodge. Our friends waited while my Dad tried to start it, only took three tries. Sonia called me, shook my hand. I made a fist around a bill. They drove off. “Must have been the voltage regulator,” explained my Dad. He’d pick up a rebuilt at Yankee Armature. We talked baseball and Boston’s chances in ’60 driving home also a two-year-old Clarence would be a stakes horse. His name was Range Rider. My Dad didn’t tell me all those men went with Sonia for a massage or to have their palms read. He’d give me more credit than that I hoped. Maybe he thought he’d provided a necessary education for his son and Amen. Well, I knew the capital of Latvia and a nice twist of theology.
I didn’t try to shock or impress friends, got very selfish about that adventure. I bet my Dad did too. The ten-spot Sonia had slipped me created a kind of backroom feeling, as if I were a partner in the racket. My Dad never bought a voltage regulator but he did have a new radio installed.