The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

June 18, 2010

WGI 2nd Place: WHEN YOU'RE A JET by Joe Hartlaub

Bill was out of cigarettes. He listened to the whisper of Vicki’s sleep-breathing next to him as he slowly sat up from her twin bed. He considered either leaving now, making a clean getaway while she slept and using a trip to the no-name market on West State to buy some loosies as an excuse to go, or bumming one out of her purse, smoking it and staying awhile.

He slowly rolled off her bed; Vicki stirred and hmmmed for a few seconds and then got quiet and still again. Bill walked quietly over to Vicki’s purse on top of the chest of drawers against the opposite wall of her bedroom. He unzipped the purse flap and looked inside. It was dark but he could make out the logo on the front of the box even in the darkness: American Spirits in an orange pack. Ultra light filters. That settled it, as sure as if his guardian angel had opened the bedroom door for him and beckoned him out. When he smoked, he wanted tobacco that didn’t taste as if it had stepped on twenty times. He quietly zipped her purse back up and found his clothes in a heap on the floor, tee shirt, pants, socks, and shoes on the bottom. Even in the heat of passion he made sure that his clothes were laid out fireman-style.

He got dressed and had just started to turn the doorknob when Vicki sat up in bed, wide-awake, like she had been lying there watching him the whole time.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m out of cigarettes.”

“I have some.”

“American Spirit, right. Not my thing.”

“You looked in my purse?”

“No. I noticed last night.”

“Wow. You noticed! That’s different.” Vicki swept her black hair off of her neck as she lay back down on the bed. Bill could see her green eyes, even in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. “Are you coming back?”

He hesitated just a beat too long before answering. “I’ve got some things I need to clear up. Maybe we can get together later this week?”

Vicki didn’t say anything. She wasn’t crying but Bill could see her chin quiver for just a second.

“VVVVVVVmmmmmmmmmmm…” she said.

“What’s that?” Bill asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “Just the sound of Bill Plant, taking off after a pit stop.” She rolled over and faced the wall. “I thought it might be nice if we went over to Tommy’s Diner this morning,” she said, “had some breakfast for a change, you know, actually do something together other than fuck and suck. Never mind. Go.”

“Vicki, I ---”

“Just go,” she said, rolling out of bed, standing naked in front of him.

He looked at her. Two years and she still looked good to him, great breasts, kept herself trimmed up the way he liked it. The thought crossed his mind for just a second that he wasn’t being fair to her, not wanting to close the deal, classifying her as the latest of one of a long line of women that he would fuck but not eat with. He sure wasn’t going to do any better, not on the wrong side of 50.

He had seven different things to say to her and they all got stuck in his throat as he turned away and walked out of her bedroom and through her small living room and out of her front door. He braced himself, anticipating a vase or a book flying through the air and hitting him in the head or back. It had happened before. Instead, all he heard was what might have been a sob as he closed her door and walked down the hall. He would have preferred being hit by a book.

* * *

Bill walked over to the mart on West State Street, the only place around that was open, catering to the Mount Carmel West workers who could sneak out of the hospital for a quick break. Chui Tren, Vietnamese guy who ran the place always had a small box of loosies on the counter, even if forty cents for a cigarette was a ripoff. Bill sometimes thought that maybe Tren just liked fooling with the people in the neighborhood, maybe driving in from Upper Arlington or Hilliard every morning to sell overpriced stuff to the white trash and colored folk and the Mexes who were all one big unhappy family down in the Bottoms. Bill bought three to get him through the rest of the night then walked back to West Broad and down a block to his room at the Econo Inn.

His room wasn’t a shithole, but it was depressing just to walk into the place. He never really noticed it until he had been somewhere else, like Vicki’s apartment. It wasn’t like she lived in Dublin --- she had a one bedroom in a small building across from the hospital --- but she at least had curtains, a couple of plants, refrigerator magnets with pictures of cute animals, that type of thing. And she more or less kept things picked up. She was fairly neat, for a woman.

Bill didn’t even have a refrigerator, and had three pairs of clothes to his name. He did try to keep himself clean, though. It was a warm night, not unusual for May in Columbus, and he was funky from the night‘s activities, so he stripped and took a quick shower to wash Vicki and the street off of him. There wasn’t much call in the building for hot water at 2 AM, not that most of the other residents, guests and whatnots-by-the-hour bothered much with soap and water at any time day or night.

He was toweling off when his phone buzzed. He was afraid it was Vicki, with more guilt to lay on him, but the caller ID said “Roger.” He took the call. Roger wanted him, right away, at the one place in the entire world Bill did not want to be.

* * *

Roger, who had been banging a puta on Central Avenue for a couple of weeks, had stumbled out of her crib around 11:00 PM in a kind of half-assed post-coital bliss --- no problemo, the puta had other things to do --- and had headed up Mound on an aimless walkabout when he saw three of the F-Boys making a dash across the street by the abandoned Cooper Stadium about two blocks ahead of him. Roger had ducked into the shadow of a shuttered restaurant when he heard their rapid-fire español, anger and laughter alternating in their voices.

Foreign language classes hadn’t been part of Roger’s trade school curriculum so he had no idea what they were saying as he shadowed them, keeping a block or two behind them, motivated as much by idle curiosity as much as anything else. They had run up Cypress, Roger dogging them in the shadows, and had just turned on Campbell when Five-O rolled up from different directions, three cars worth, with their light bars flashing. The law had the gang members trussed and bussed in less time than it took to talk about it.

Roger had waited until the cops had left and then wandered up onto the scene, just as sweet as a little school kid, like he happened to have just missed all of the action. A guy who had been sitting on his front porch with a dog and a forty-ouncer told him that the mess had been connected with the robbery of a check-cashing store an hour before up on Sullivant. A trio of F-Boys had walked in and robbed the place, leaving behind nothing but their three-amigo digital images on the store’s security camera. The hombres were not strangers to the police, who had been on them like white on rice. The money, however, was missing. Roger thought about where he had seen them coming from and guessed that maybe, just maybe, that money was sitting in Cooper Stadium somewhere, stashed until they could get word out to their bros through one of the “se habla Espanol” storefront lawyers up and down West Broad Street.

Roger knew only one guy who was familiar with the Coop, and that was Bill, even if he hated the place, refusing to call it anything but “Jet Stadium” when he called it anything at all. So Roger had called Bill. They needed to get in there quick, before some other F-Boys checked it out first. Which was why Roger had told Bill to come quick. And to come heavy.

Bill had not been inside Jet Stadium in years, not since his dad had played there in 1970. It had been a magic year for his whole family, actually. His dad, known as Bud to everyone --- even Bill --- had bounced around the minor leagues for a couple of years before signing in 1970 with the Columbus Jets, a Triple – A team that was the farm club for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The family had rented a house on South Grubb Street on the western edge of the Bottoms. The neighborhood was not much different from their old one, the hard end of Greenup Street in Covington, Kentucky, where they would watch the Ohio River roll by from their small back yard. Neighbors around them on Grubb were northern Kentucky transplants, too, and on his first day of school Bill had heard jokes about “reading, writing and Route 23” from teachers and students alike. Bill had acquired some reflected glory from his dad’s status as starting shortstop for the Jets: the .360 batting average, better than most of the players for the Pirates, didn‘t hurt things either. Bud quickly became a neighborhood, and then a hometown, hero.

On those rare occasions when Bud had the money he would take Bill and his mom out for Sunday dinner at Patton’s, a neighborhood bar and grill that sat down and across the street from Jet Stadium. When Bud and his family would walk in a stir would run through the after church crowd, waiting for tables with their backs pressed up against the knotty pine paneling. People would call Bud’s name, come up and shake his hand, wish him a good luck, send drinks over to the family’s table from the square bar in the middle of the place.

Everyone wanted to soak up Bud’s sunshine while they could; a sports reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal had noted the presence of a scout from Pittsburgh on two successive nights during a home stand against Richmond, taking notes whenever Bud came to bat, and it was all but a certainty that he would be wearing a Pirates uniform before the season was done. Bill became a de facto mascot for the concession employees, who showed him every nook and cranny of the place in the warm-up hours before each game.

But the dream summer ended abruptly on a warm night in August 1970.

Storm clouds had been rolling in from the west all afternoon like a bad omen, settling over the stadium and the cemetery that sat to the east of it, turning the sky dark as pitch and causing the management to turn the stadium lights on early. Still, the rain held off and the Jets, by the top of the ninth, hung onto a one run lead against the hated Rochester Red Wings. The Wings managed to load the bases with two out, and the stadium got quiet as a cocky twenty-two year old named Charlie Baker stepped up to the plate, grinning like a raccoon eating shit in the moonlight, his teeth visible all the way up to the nosebleed seats in center field.

Scott Denis, a Jets pitcher who had shown some great stuff in Pittsburgh two years before but who was on his way downhill, wound up and released the ball just a second earlier than he should have, giving it to Baker big and fat, down the center and across the letters right where Baker wanted it. He swung the bat around hard and confident, drilling a hard line drive to left center field that looked like it was gone until Bud Plant made an impossible, perfectly timed jump and catch that stopped the forward progress of the ball and ended not only the game but also his career. Fans at the game thought that the ball had taken Bud’s hand off, and it might as well have; the compound fracture of his right wrist finished him for the season.

Bud was still in physical therapy at the end of the season, when the team owners made the surprise announcement that they were moving the Jets to Charleston, West Virginia. Bud, for his part, never came. His injury broke his spirit as well as his bones. Phantom pains plagued his wrist and fingers, keeping him up at night and listless during the day. Dinners at Patton’s were few and far between and when the family did walk in, people turned sideways and the room got perceptibly quieter. Their neighborhood offered plenty of opportunities for bottled self-medication, and Bud started to stay away from home more and more, unable to face his wife and son and himself.

When Bill’s mom died of a silent heart attack in 1976, what little air had been left in Bud’s sails collapsed. Bud didn’t answer Bill’s knock on his bedroom door one morning in April 1977, the day that the newly returned and renamed Columbus Clippers were to play their first game as a team in the renamed Franklin County Stadium. Bill walked in and found his dad hanging from his belt, a last will and testament pinned to his shirt and consisting of a piece of lined notebook paper with the word “TIRED” penciled in block letters across it.

Bill had never gone back to the ballpark again, had in fact tried to avoid walking past it, even though he had never lived more than a few blocks away from it since he was nine years old. If he talked about it at all, he called it Jet Stadium, refusing to acknowledge the name changes over the years, a habit that made him the butt of jokes from his dwindling set of friends as his life moved on in an ever downward trajectory of unskilled and part-time jobs, legal and otherwise. A part of him rejoiced when the Clippers left the stadium in 2009 to play at the tony new facility on the edge of downtown. Even now, however, he would not have been making the long trek down Glenwood Avenue to Mound Street, toward what he still called Jet Stadium, but for Roger.

He and Roger Widmeyer had been friends since grade school, eating their poor kid bread and butter lunches together at recess, cutting phys ed classes together at Starling Junior High, dropping out from West High, standing back to back in the inmate cage on Jackson Pike at different times over the years when they would get collared over a minor beef, finding jobs for each other that required strong backs and weak minds, each of them the brother the other never had. When one called, the other answered, even when the call came from Jet Stadium.

Most of the street lights were out on Glenwood but Bill kept to the shadows anyway, as much to duck the occasional patrol car as to avoid the roving gangbangers, blasting heavy drums and bass under an aggressive ghetto or Hispanic rap, depending on who was at the wheel, followed by police cars which tracked them slowly up and down the cross streets as if they were playing some R-rated variation of Pac-Man on the Bottoms’ side streets, no doubt made more intense by the robbery and subsequent arrest.

Roger had told Bill to meet him inside Gate C, where the general admission parking had been. There was a chain pulled across the driveway that kept cars out but little else. The county’s grand plans for the old stadium as a racetrack hadn’t come together, and it didn’t bother with the cost of patrolling it to keep vandals from doing damage. Bill could see that the stands, open to the lot from its northeastern exposure, were missing a few seats here and there to enterprising fans who wanted a piece of local history. Roger, for all his hurry hurry, wasn’t there, however.

Bill flipped his phone open and hit the speed dial. After a couple of seconds he heard Roger’s ringtone --- “Sorry You Asked” by Dwight Yoakam --- playing somewhere nearby. No answer from Roger though. When Bill’s call kicked into voicemail he hung up and redialed, then tried to follow the sound of Dwight singing about why his girlfriend wasn’t with him tonight. He followed the music around the outside curve of the stadium and saw a porta-potty, probably left from the ground crew, just a few feet ahead. Probably caught him with his pants down, Bill thought. I’ll help him squeeze it out a little faster.

Bill sidled up to the unlocked door of the porta-potty, paused, then threw open the door.

Roger was on the commode, and his business was done. He was sitting on the commode, pants down around his ankles, throat cut open and decorated with a garland of twenty-dollar bills soaked in his own red.

Bill felt the ground open up underneath him like he had fallen down a well. He had just talked to Roger not more than twenty minutes beforehand. Now this. Bill felt a bubble form and then break inside of his chest as a sob rose up deep inside him. This was Roger, who had stood up with him, backed him up. He stood there waiting for Roger to jump up, laughing, rubbing off the greasepaint or whatever it was that was caked around his throat and shirt, laughing at his joke. But it wasn’t going to happen.

“You gonna cry for him, maricon?”

Bill whirled around to find two guys behind him, F-Boy gang tats running up their necks, wearing snazzy patterned fedoras and dressed in wife beaters, snow white except for a splash of red dots across them.

“You look like you gonna give your buddy a hummer, man. Wassup wit you guys, anyhow? Nobody don’ steal from the F, stupido.”

The gangbangers were both short and squat, which pissed Bill off even more for some reason, and without saying another word he pulled the .38 Special out of his right pocket and shot the guy on the left where he stood, boom boom boom, three bullets in him before he fell down. Bill turned and aimed at the second guy, never hesitating, but was too slow anyway as the hombre moved in and punched him, hard, in the gut, even as Bill stuck his gun under the fucker’s chin and fired two times, the bullets traveling up and out the top of the F-Boy’s head, blowing his head and hat to hell and back. Come heavy, Roger had said. His last favor to Bill.

The guy went limp and Bill let him fall, a Swinguard blade falling out of the guy’s hand and out of Bill at the same time. Bill looked down at himself, wondering how he could be bleeding so much, so quickly, without hurting. He dropped the gun and put his hand against his stomach, trying to hold his bleeding stomach in as he stumbled away from the bodies, almost tripping over a black tote bag that was sitting behind the gangbangers. He picked it up; it was heavy, so heavy that he felt his insides shift inside of him and almost spill out. Bill hefted the bag over to the side of the Gate C drive and leaned against a cement riser while he opened it. It was full of cash, tens and fives and twenties and fifties.

He looked at it for a moment --- so much money! --- then zipped the bag up and started walking slowly away toward the lights of Broad Street, eight long blocks away, the bag causing him to list to one side as he held his other hand, slippery, to the wound. He heard cheers erupt behind him from dark and empty Jet Stadium. He thought about calling Vicki, maybe ask her out to breakfast now that he had the money to do it. He fumbled for his phone with his bloody hand. It slipped away from him and he almost tripped over it but kept walking. No breakfast after all, he thought. The cheers faded and the night air, so warm before, suddenly turned colder, as his feet got heavier with each wet step.


  1. I think that's the best suicide note I've come across in fiction.
    Nice work.

  2. Tight, snappy, and I never saw that ending coming. Good story.