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Ric Hoeben

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PICKLE

By Ric Hoeben

There was river birch and there was lilac and then there was first base. Or at least the hole where first base once sat in the red, soft earth had kept, and Scoop stood about and remembered something of it.

And so, also, had he tread the layout of land and all the paths back down to Ball Village with a boy’s instinct, and he could have found the old diamond blindfolded should he have to do it. Without error, he had worked his way through tall grass and ragweed pollen, his science fiction book and notepad sweat-stuck in his one hand, his pimento cheese in the other, and now being here, he crouched himself down for a hesitant bit and finally sat firm and cross-legged among the remains of first base, where he had once played it long and lank.

Here, where he had stood awaiting zipping grounders like some sort of noble bird, where, too, he’d bucketed up many a tricky egg launched over from third with the quick whiff of his first baseman mitt and then, sheepish, he’d look out and find his three coaches lounging, oat-rubbing, yonder at their farside dugout, the three of them shouting it: “Yeah, get ‘em, Scoop—way to go, big Scoop!”

That whole world here was now dead.

He’d got in his Chevy wagon and come back. It was some two hundred miles away from home, but what does it matter—he figured—when you’ve got to become the best science fiction writer alive, and he had, after all, stood there in the giant bookstore and read for a couple of Sunday hours the heaps of material, all of it about becoming one of the worthies, one of the respectable kind of good real sci-fi writers, and he had thought that the one writer man’s advice about recalling his favorite childhood spot and then going straight there after it, no matter the obstacles, would have him in tune with everything needing tune-up, and that then the writing would begin to flow like rivers and the whole world would soon be seeing his novels and all the films, and people would think Scoop Malone really had something good and new and undiscovered on supraterrestials and time dilation and all the other kinds of topics he had read up on when he was meant to be dispersing and delivering mail throughout his work building.

It was some twenty years ago, all that life that was here. He could see Josh Greene’s blasting home run still sailing over the left field scoreboard—now nothing but rusted poles and faded words—and he saw another night, a night when Rodney Brown dove over the centerfield gate to catch a homer and save their big division win, Rodney’s royal blue ballpants snagging along the simple yard-fence and the streams of blood coursing down his thighs when back in the dugout. Eating his pimento cheese and his crackers, Scoop presently thought about all those boys and where they could have gone off to, recollecting the few pieces of what he did know: some were in prison, some had made it in money, some were dead, some were Marines, and some had actually gone to college like he had at Carver Community. All them boys of yesteryear.

His white socks had turned a bit brown from the dirt, and he picked off a few sandspurs from them, brushed them white again, and then, finally, he felt good, calm, undistracted—calm enough to get down to the serious business of writing. He aimed to do to science fiction what Waylon Jennings had done to country music.

There were a few ideas competing in his head and he hoped Strange Horizons would like whatever he finally chose to start on, for his first goal was to get himself into Strange Horizons and then—and only then—start working on Asimov’s and the other giants.

He scribbled out a few good sentences, swatted away gnats while at it, and then realized it was much too hot for it, for writing. His tight denim jeans were chaffing hard against last week’s mosquitoes bites, the sensitive ones flecked all along the insides of his legs, and his brow had turned liquid, while his five-day beard seemed to sting its way right through his face. He had no towel to wipe himself with. The gun bulging in his denim aggravated him as well. He had brought along the little blued .38 in case there were problems, because at Ball Village, at least historically, there were always problems, and Scoop wanted no unnatural interference with his science-fiction making and his big shot at Strange Horizons. He’d kill a man if he had to.

*

Soon as Scoop woke up he immediately hated himself for the dozing. His giant black wristwatch read: 3:05, 105º. Hot as hell. His arms now redder, sandspurs all over him, he brushed and grimaced and tried to reconfigure. His sci-fi model book had crept over some ten yards closer to the dugout—how so, he knew not, as there was certainly no wind, because any wind would have been God’s blessing.

The dugout. Yes, he’d kissed up different girls there. Flat-chested kind of girls, though one of them had big—real big—tanned sort of nice breasts—he missed hard the feel of animal suckings; he had no woman, no wife, and somehow he had been more attractive back at 12 than at 32. He hadn’t sucked a breast in years. He needed to get published for that. He had to write. The women would come, they would come, just write it, damnit, he thought. But he needed water first—first thing was water, then Strange Horizons, then Asimov’s—and there was a fountain at the junkyard yonder and a soda machine, too—an updated one now—way over there behind centerfield—past the gate where little Rodney had done his heroic dive, past the street where homers sometimes bounced around and where an occasional windshield shattered, past all of that and into the live oaks and the cars and trucks of death and decay where only Greene’s big rocket homers could reach.

He was very dehydrated now and he knew it.

*

There was his Chevy wagon out in the gravel and he could take it or he could just walk his way over.

He decided on footing it and trotted his way toward the remains of second base and then toward the leftfield side gate, the outfield grass all along high, and he waded his way past each new discovery: old beers and old Marlboros, a ragged piece of catcher’s vest and plenty of anthills. By the time he actually got to the gate, he’d seen a snake.

The sidegate was rusted, but Scoop was tall enough to leg his way over much like the big television wrestlers could do when on the ring apron. He was getting ever closer to his goal of water, and when crossing by the old ballpark restrooms, he wouldn’t even consider trying out the sip fountain fixtures, as he could well see the outcome of that. Half-determined, he kept on toward the pavement road, looking back a time or two to his sad Chevy van, swimming a little in a hot haze of sun and burgundy paint.

The concession stand suddenly came up upon him. He remembered it fondly, back there tucked behind the reek of public bathroom, because whether his team won or whether his team lost, someone—some kind (of)adult—would be behind the scenes buying red hot dogs and grape snow cones for all the boys. He had outcomed a game many a time when at first base, and depending on win/loss, he’d be the very first in concession stand line or he’d be shuffling clay down at miserable last. Presently he was first and last. And the little place still looked open for business.

And there was one of them—one of the Vandals. Vandallys; he remembered their real name only secondarily. The junkyard owners, the family with his water, the Vandallys.

Timothy Vandally was the only one who had ever come over and signed up to be on a Dixie League team; he was obvious plain white trash and smoked and was only 10 then, whereas Scoop and the others were maybe 11-13. And now, here, was another of the Vandallys, perched in the concession stand, writing down something the other—maybe drawing—on a legal pad slung over the sidebar of the tiny canteen.

Scoop inched closer to the cinder block hut and toward the open window where whatever Vandally leaned himself forth. The plywood window was well propped and tacked to holes within the whitewash, and certainly it was a Vandally writing something down, definitely a Vandally all grown up now—Scoop could tell by the nose and the cheap scowl—probably not Timothy, didn’t look much like Timothy had, but this was some twenty years on fast-forward.

Scoop looked up and down the slant of sidebar menus and all the familiar plug-in letters on all the familiar faded Pepsi signs still read: snow cones, $1.00 (out of lemon); hot dogs, 75 cents; chewing gum, 5 cents apiece. Assorted potato chips and other cavity-getters advertised themselves as well, but Scoop simply wanted cool, cool ice water and he told whatever Vandally now before him just as much.

Slowly the man looked up and met with him. He was dressed like a golfer, or at least as a man in golfing clothes taken from Salvation Army racks; he had car grease all about him, and Scoop remembered that every Vandally of his boyhood memory had looked more or less the same as he, the one now before him: raven black hair, olive complexion, golf tatters, and all their streaks of motor oil and all their streaks of earth. None of the Vandallys had probably ever even actually played golf. But they might have owned some clubs. Packrats, menaces, Scoop thought, yes, their carport had known some golf clubs now and then.

Water?!” the man shouted at him, as if he’d tried to twice before. “Ain’t no water. Water ain’t no money.” He went back to scribbling down his letters, did the greasy Vandally.

“But I’m thirsty, friend,” Scoop pleaded.

“I sell liquor and sin and isn’t but one of them liquefied. So you tell me how it’s going to be, man.”

“What you working on, Vandally? You an artist now?”

“Just writing. Aim to be a science fiction writer. You ever read anything, brother?”

“I’ve been trying to write a little something out there in the field myself, out there behind first base. A man in the advice books says you’re supposed to find your favorite childhood spot.”

“Shit. That’s real stupid.”

“Well, it was flowing fine for me. Just a bit too hot today. Which is why I intend for that water, see?”

“I ain’t got no water in here, idiot. We can trek it over to the house, and I might let you use one of the hoses.”

“Good stuff, man.” Scoop said affectedly. “You really even get many customers out here?”

“Be quiet, brother. I’ve got an idea about the old Pauli exclusion principle and I want it right here up front in my second chapter, so you’re gonna have to shut your fuckin’ trap, at least till I’m good and ready.”

“I was thinking about humans and a comparison to Brownian movements—you understand what that is, right?”

“Man, you better shut the fuck up or I’ll shotgun the fuck out of your head. I don’t give a shit.”

Scoop tapped at his denim-covered .38 for a little mental security. “Just trying to share ideas,” he said. He thought again of his work and how good it was going to be. “Say, you read Strange Horizons? I should be getting in there real soon.”

“Right.”

“And then maybe Asimov’s.”

“You’d be dead before either, Heinlein, if you don’t shut the fuck up. I have more guns back here than an armory and I’d blast your head into pieces and serve it over grape snow cones for all six of my lil’ nephews.”

“Six nephews! That’s a goddamn heap; I don’t have a single nephew.”

“Do you have a sister?”

“Nope,” Scoop said proudly.

“Dumbass.”

“Well, have you ever been published, Vandally?”

“Yep. By using a penname, too. Several of them actually. My agent advised it, and I saw his meaning right off.”

“Tell me one of them—I read so many of them, and I might would know it.”

“No, you’re going to be quiet or you’re going to die—it’s real simple our logic out here. Where the hell you from, anyway?”

“Mapleton. Upstate.”

“Hmm. Nice cunts up there.”

“Come on and tell me one of your pennames already. Please, man. Else I’m going to consider you a liar.”

“Well, then, let me just drop everything I’m doing here. Okay? I’m coming right down there in a minute to tell you all about it. Just hold on. Okay, my friend?”

*

The lot of them stood there as if waiting for something to come and happen to them; bored, outside, waiting in the golf clothes and in the grease among humanity’s forgotten Chevrolets and Fords, young ones and old ones, all of them Vandallys, all of them crossarmed and seemingly protecting the crumbles of their light brick house and the carport of arcade games, computers, and whole rows of washer/dryer sets.

One shaven-head boy twirled a computer mouse, snarling a bit with it as he looked up at Scoop Malone.

Concession-stand Vandally smiled down at the boy—he presumably one of the little six.

“Jacob, you wanna choke this Mapleton man with that there mouse cord—well, I might let you if you act real good today for Uncle Richard.”

Some of the older Vandallys smiled, and Scoop made out which one Timothy was. He was certain of it.

“Come on, stranger,” said Uncle Richard.

Scoop wished he hadn’t left the canteen with the man now.

“Yes, come on,” he repeated. “Yonder stands your trampoline. I don’t think you’ll want to pick that. Think of all those big springs there circling around it, my friend. Don’t they just look giant—even from here?”

The six nephew boys, in chorus, broke apart and giggled and then spun themselves around in the dirt-dust driveway, all good fun to them. Some of the smaller ones were thumbsuckers, and the older ones of them pointed to the trampoline with some level of understanding.

“And so,” Richard Vandally continued, “you’re probably gonna want to stick with these here cars and what we call a Jam-Slammer. Or Toomer could get out one of his Samurai swords—no, no, let’s not do that today, goddamnit. Sorry, my Toomer.”

The squat Vandally to Richard’s immediate left flank sighed, he being irritated somewhat, or so it appeared.

“Now come over here to this Buick, you little Mapleton bitch. Edgar, you and Tim drag him on over here.”

Up came spots of mound and patches of weed grass for them to maneuver through and so get nigh the rusting Buick in all its after-market aubergine glory. Only the computer mouse kid, the smallest of them there, could easily dart his way ahead, and he had done so, and there he had opened up the driver’s side door and then swung his merry way over it, back and forth, creak-squeak, his head poking out through the open window.

And it was all the sudden like that Richard had Scoop’s hand deep within his own. Richard’s arm was meaty, hairy, and red-dimpled in a few spots, and Scoop thought to himself that it was a man’s hand, like his own father’s had been.

“Now what we’re gonna do is not hard to understand,” Richard continued his show.

“I’m going to ask you questions—easy, real easy questions—and if you answer right, you’ll be okay. Now get to squattin’ down. Come on, Mapleton.”

Scoop knelt in the mix of weeds and dirt and anthill, with some reluctance, and looked back up toward his sudden master and asked of him: “And what if I answer wrongly?”

“Then this will happen!”

The smarting kind of human pain that shot up through Scoop’s fingers was something unbearable. His pale, boney claws immediately broke out into a spreading fire and he sucked his tongue back to keep from crying in front of all the gathered men.

“Don’t even try to inch it away,” the looming presence of Timothy Vandally added. Richard held Scoop’s red hand again at the spot of air between the door and the doorjamb and creaked the Buick’s wing back toward his own waist. Scoop still knelt and looked downward to the grit of earth below him.

“Tell me this, then, friend. Who is the greatest—who is the finest Science Fiction writer in the state?”

“That’d be hard for me to say,” Scoop said, nervously.

Then the door creaked a tad and slammed forward, up against his palm once again.

Scoop stifled the scream that he really wanted as he fell down flat upon the dirt. He had never known anything quite like this.

“Fuckin’ fool,” the littlest boy said, rat-tailed and proud, as he twirled his toy around the big clouds of sky above. Back on his knees, Scoop was eye-level with the kid again, and he wanted to reach out and choke him with his red throb of hands, but he knew the consequences would be very mortal.

“Tell me now,” Richard barked, “and you use a different answer this time.”

“Richard,” Scoop muttered. “You are, truly, the best science fiction writer of all, Richard Vandally. You and you alone. No one else out there even close.”

“That ain’t my published name, you fuck.”

Once more the door creaked forth and sunk an attack into Scoop’s flesh. He bit down fast on his bottom lip. He could barely talk now:

“I don’t know your pennames. You wouldn’t give them.”

“Well, you won’t find any of them in that Strange Horizons shit of yours, but once you get back up to Mapleton you better had find them where they do be. I’ll give you one easy, man. John Jammer. You look up that name some time, you little shit.” He then kicked Scoop square in the jeans and some amount of dust did fly.

And then he spat upon him.

“Get back on your knees. Who said we were finished here?”

The little one still spun his lasso. He never seemed to tire with it or diminish, and Scoop, dizzy, had never longed for water so bad in his whole existence, so he risked asking after it again.

“Oh,” Richard Vandally remarked. “I did forget about your water. Are the hoses up and running, Toomer?”

Toomer and Edgar shook their heads from side to side. Gnats had at some point gathered around on everybody, but no one was swatting now.

“Hmm, and a shame.” Richard crept up behind his favorite nephew and stopped him from all his twirl, and then he whispered way down into his hearing. And Scoop, before he could realize what was happening in real-time, Scoop, an awful kind of haggard, sensed the definite enough taste of brine within his mouth, and he saw the pearly, joker giggle of the little one positioned before him, and then the boy was all quick-like, pulling his cotton shorts back up high over his crust of belly button.

All the other Vandallys gave themselves over to roaring and enjoying life and so on.

Scoop stole a look for himself; it was a hard look back toward the ball diamond, and he thought he could see something of his one and only homer during those boy years. It was a blast—a blast on par with Josh Greene’s best, and it had crossed the road and the big rumor for that day had been that the ball had met with the windshield of one of the Vandally’s Plymouths.

And when now scanning behind the home plate area, Scoop could just make out the tiny speck of his burgundy Chevy van and he wanted home, he wanted Mapleton, and he wanted to be smiling and delivering mail to all the cubicle people on the four floors of his work. But here he was with his hands tied. Edgar was approaching for his own try with him, but Timothy roughhoused and earned his way out in front. Timothy would be next then. Timothy had always hated the ringleader in Josh Greene, and that was a fact. Timothy had daydreamed those games away out in right field while Josh Greene held down third with some kind of golden precision.

Scoop, now sitting with his back against the Buick’s aubergine midsection and his dead arm flung out space-side, offered up his hand to Timothy Vandally. He could soak it real good whenever he got home. He’d get up and would go to work in the morning and he would work hard and he would forget about Asimov’s and all his ridiculous hoping against hope. He was very behind at work. But for now, Timothy was tugging his red hand on closer to the slow squeak of car door, while the tiny mouse boy ran crazed around the live oaks, he looking just like Timmy had once looked, Timothy Vandally who had hated smooth Josh Greene and all his flairing it up at third. Scoop had even kind of envied third base sometimes himself; he had hated being so tall, had hated being sort of stuck with his task— which the three coaches had made seem so obvious then—and he had even hated “Scoop,” but now, with his hand firmly put inside Timothy’s, he could see something of Josh Greene, far, far away from his third base post, far away and in Marine’s fatigues, being made some stranger in a strange land, and Scoop looked back up to this Vandally in control at the present moment, he standing there all ready to take his first big swing, and Scoop Malone, these twenty-odd years later, was now very glad he had played first base for all of those seasons.

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Ric Hoeben homes it in eastern South Carolina, holds an MFA from the University of Florida, and hopes his recently finished literary crime novel, Oceans of Gold, will be a real smash.

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