Friday, May 20, 2011

I hope you enjoy

my new novel

It has no name yet.
To read it, start at CH 1

When it is a best-seller, you
will be able to say that you
READ IT WHEN

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ch. 9: at busch

At first I don't believe it, that I've let Brownstreet go and break into Hall's apartment, with his key, with these murderers lurking around probably about to pop him one the minute he shows up. But I also badly need a break, I need to get back to my job, I need to get over and take in a Cards game, or I'll go nuts. And Brownstreet was clearly up for it; I wasn't. Whatever happened, he wanted it; he volunteered to do it; I didn't. I stood, surveyed the river once more, and prepared to walk across the bridge to Busch, to take in the game. That's the good thing about being a sports reporter; you get this free pass to all these games. Yes, you have to write about them. But the main thing is, you get to go to them.

The Cards are overall a pretty good deal, too. They don't win it all every year, and were already out of the race in this particular one, but they were often competitive, often won it all, and always gave you a good show. This of course was before I became disillusioned with all sports and particularly with the big-money sports, that chewed up and spit out players like Arlen Brand and that created huge big-money empires of people who had only one thing in common: they'd do anything to win.

The bridge has a walkway and is fairly accessible and actually good for the spirit, given the stiff wind, the September sky, the big river below and the ubiquitous Arch. Downtown St. Louis isn't all that big; it's fairly easy to get over to Busch and there wasn't much between me and the stadium though it was a fairly long walk. About a block away, though, I was surprised to come up from behind Eldon Stearns, who was also going to the game.

He recognized me immediately, stopping on the sidewalk, and actually offered me a ticket; he had an extra. I of course had a press pass, but agreed to use his ticket and avoid the press box altogether, though it would have been good for the information I could learn up there. Given the choice, a simple seat on the first-base side sounded good, and sounded like the best way to get away from it all: away from Arlen Brand, away from the press, away from Ben Salem. The Cards had always been my escape hatch.

There was an upbeat feeling in the stadium, though it was by no means full; fans, all wearing red, filled the place up steadily, and the game started and settled into baseball's usual, gentle pace, one pitch after another; we settled in with hot dogs and chips for a relaxing afternoon. Stearns knew his baseball, and was able to spot a curve and a slider, able to identify who was not playing and why not. The game was interesting and the visiting Reds would give the Cards a fight. But also we got along well and kept up a lively conversation.

He asked me about the man whose life we had saved: who was he, and what had happened? I gave him a general outline of what I knew, leaving out meeting him later, the shootout and the planned apartment break-in, happening across town as we spoke. He was aware of the string of class-action lawsuits in Madison County, including the Barbie case, which had attracted a bit of publicity, and controversy as well, since so much money was involved in each suit. He was curious about what kind of enemies these guys would have, that would run them off the road, if indeed it happened intentionally. Someone wanted them both dead? One had jumped? It seemed kind of fantastic.

Eventually the Arlen Brand story came out too, because I explained what I was doing on that bridge at that hour. I'd actually been in Iowa, where Arlen Brand had been thrown in jail for drunken driving and possession of cocaine a week earlier, and was now being released from jail, but also being released by the Iowa Hawkeyes, thrown off the team in disgrace; the press conference announcing his starting up with a local St. Louis team would be this afternoon, and I would of course attend. I say of course, because Arlen Brand was a local, home-town hero, quarterback of a famous Mt. Zion team that won the championship only three years ago, on a famous so called "hail-mary" pass that was perhaps the high point of sports writing in the Mt. Zion newspaper.

I call it the high point, because basically you can write about sports for years, as I have learned, and you'll have some very faithful and religious readers, so to speak, who hang on every word, and get very angry or personal about any implication that they are not the perfect athletes. Then you'll get a small minority of people who read the stories, are satisfied with a general account of what happened, and may or may not dispute some details assuming they attended the game or had some reason to care. But it's a rare story that virtually everyone reads and discusses; that literally has the whole town buying the paper and opening it up to the sports section; this may not happen today, but even at this time, roughly 2005, this was rare but you could notice it, say at a barber shop or a Denny's, where a paper is sitting around, and people actually pick it up, and open it to the sports page. This play, and the ensuing story and picture about it, was the talk of the town for weeks.

So Brand had been a stellar quarterback all year on the local football team; had led the team to state, had won most of the tournament with his dazzling arm and smart play-calling, yet when it came down to the end, it all hinged on a single play, which in football those days was call a "Hail Mary" pass, one in which you throw the ball way up in the air, and just hope that, when it comes down, your man is the one who can catch it. Often he can't, or, someone beats him to it, but generally this play occurs at the end of the game, when you have no other options, and hoping for blind luck is the last or only thing you can do, because a shorter pass, or a run, or another option will lead to losing the game, whereas this pass could possibly lead to winning. But it all hinges on your receiver having a good position, and a good ability to jump, and the ability to come down with the ball at that right moment. And, by some quirk of luck, we had all that stuff at that moment. The receiver, in fact, I had forgotten his name, but he just happened to be there. And the photographers too: we had by luck gotten both the throw and the catch, in two separate photos, and put them side by side on the front page.

Whereupon we, and by we I mean the entire town of Mt. Zion, which was completely in love with Arlen Brand, sent him on full scholarship up to Iowa where he was expected to be a star quarterback within a couple of years. Now here, I can say that I often associate Iowa with that American Gothic painting, with the farmer, and his wife, and the pitchfork, and that painting is one of moral certainty, I always thought, like that farmer was saying to you, you'd better do good, better do right, better not mess around on your wife, or this pitchfork will be coming after you. It's got that sense of church-going, god-fearing moral certainty that somehow has transferred entirely over to the state itself, in people's minds. So that's why it was kind of a surprise to find that Arlen Brand was in jail just a few years later. What happened?

We discussed this case, while down on the field, and this was sneaking up on us, it appeared that some young Reds pitcher was no-hitting the Cards. We were well into the fourth or fifth inning before we realized it, but the Cards had in fact got nothing, zilch, zippo, even though their lineup was full of stars and even had one All-Star third baseman, on a fifteen-game hitting streak, bound to retire at the end of the month to great acclaim city-wide. One thing you can say for St. Louis, it loves its baseball stars; it has genuine good feeling, and this was evident every time this guy came up to bat. But twice so far, no hit; no hit for any of them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

ch. 8: by the river

So Browstreet and I are in the Volvo and out of there before we realize: we aren't going anywhere in particular, and don't especially want to be seen driving around in this Volvo, given the situation. We're near the casino, though, so we go in there and park, although the place is sure to have cameras around the lots that can see a New Hampshire plate when they have the opportunity. It's a huge lot; it's right by the river; some people in Illinois use the lot to take the Metro over to the Cards game thus never actually driving into Missouri. But the lot is intended for gamblers; the casino is huge, and it does an active business there on the river, getting money off people who are glazed in the eyes and down to their last pocketful of hope.

You see, already, that I have a bad attitude toward this place, but I'm not like Brownstreet, who as you'll remember has a gig promised here; if all goes well, he'll be able to play here soon, doing steamboat songs, or old delta songs, or some kind of blues, but, as he makes it clear, he needs to straighten things out with this woman, over in the city, before he approaches the manager, who apparently expects him but is waiting to hear from her. He's kind of scouting out the place as we walk around it, but he wants to avoid the casino itself for now, and he's just as eager as I am to park the car, get out of it, take stock, and figure out what we just saw.

We go around to a bench near the river, and it's facing the city itself, the very sports venues that I've made a short living occupying. The Arch looms above us, as usual, its symbol of the gateway to the west or whatever; the river in its relentless certainty shoots downstream at our feet. The smell of stale cigarettes finds us even though we're quite a ways from the casino itself and even the parking lot.

Brownstreet makes himself comfortable and rolls a cigarette from some hidden bag of tobacco. "For sure, somebody wants Hall dead," says Brownstreet. "We need to get into that freezer and get those bastards."

"Whoa," I say. "You may have to take that one on yourself. I'm tired. And I'm busy. I have no interest in becoming a detective, a break-and-enter guy, and running up against these thugs. Are you pretty sure it's this Ben Salem guy we're up against?"

"Who else could it be?" he asks. A silence hangs, broken only by driftwood in the river, which is actually splashing the river on its hard trip downstream.

Three things bugged me about what happened, and I was still sorting them out, so I brought up the issues and we discussed them. First, Hall seemed somewhat aware that it was going to happen; he placed himself near the hallway and was out of there like a bolt of lightning when something did happen. In fact his body-check of the poor woman, his long quick strides down the hallway, and his rapid cut left out of sight, had left an image in my mind that I couldn't shake. But whoever was after him, he had seemed to have adjusted to it, even prepared for it.

Second, the gunmen - who were they? They seemed particularly inept, since they both had a clear shot at him, but missed, not only him, but everyone else, though they may have been trying to get only him. This was not a professional hit, or Hall himself at least would have been dead. They had looked to be about fifty, old drunkards, white, mafia maybe, but it was hard to tell. Who was paying them? Ben Salem, presumably. What happened to them? We had no idea; we had left them there, restrained by local black men who may or may not have called the police, men who may or may not have known Wilson Hall. My guess was, they didn't know Wilson Hall, though they may have seen him a time or two.

And finally, there was Hall himself, who had not paid the bill, but was clearly prepared to, and probably would pay it upon his eventual return to the place. Things he said bothered me: that he couldn't get to Williams' funeral; that they'd uncovered dirt on Ben Salem's asbestos racket and he was hanging onto it; that he had no car, or phone, now, or even a place to live, as his apartment was surely being watched and death would meet him at his own door, should he return. How was this guy living? What were his plans? Why was he even hanging around?

Somewhere in there Sophie calls me, and has a little more information. She also wants to know if I was still ok, still planning on going to the baseball game and the press conference, still basically working for the paper covering the unfolding stories like the Aldon Brand scandal unfolding as we spoke. In fact I had forgotten, temporarily of course, about both the game and the press conference. And, in fact, I was glad to be reminded of them, because there's nothing better than sports to get your mind off all the ugly stuff that reality shoves our way sometimes. Sophie's voice was busy but calm and reassuring in its own way. I asked her if there was any news on the wire about a shootout at Al's Barbecue in East St. Louis and she said no, she had her ear to the AP wires and nothing like that had come in.

She said that this Ben Salem guy was actually Benito Eduardo Nunez-Salem, and was in fact a ruthless president of an asbestos company, with quite a personal rap sheet but also a record of making piles of money, and actually having key congressmen by his side for important votes related to the asbestos industry, or rather, the asbestos removal industry.

Brownstreet was restless, having smoked most of the remaining tobacco. He had a date with a woman across town, and yet other plans, but somehow had forgotten them. Whereas I was overcome with reluctance, a desire not to get involved in this sordid affair, Brownstreet could think of nothing else. "That reminds me," he says, "I'm going after those documents. I hope you'll be ok if I leave you here, without a car, for a few hours?" It was now about twelve thirty; the barbecue was settling, and Busch stadium was calling. The game was at about two. I had no desire to break into an apartment, and Brownstreet had no patience with talking me into it.

"I'll meet you at this very bench at five....Hope that's OK?" It was. He got up and strolled away, purposely, toward the Volvo.

And he would; I was sure of it. He wasn't very good about times, but he was true to me, always had been. You'd think, why would he leave a close friend, without a car, down by the river, without offering him a ride wherever. But he didn't have to. I was close enough to where I needed to be, could get there easily, and could get back easily enough, in five hours.