The Storytellers Ch. 08byParis Waterman©
The Second Storyteller
Seven days later I arrived in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. The next morning I made three phone calls before confirming that a gentleman by the name of Burr actually did reside at the Middlebury Home of the Aged and that afternoon, just a few minutes before five, I found myself at the reception desk stating my case; a few short minutes later, I was being escorted down a corridor toward what had to be Harbridge's room, by a stout, over-curious, and evidently, spiteful middle-aged nurse.
Opening the door to a room that appeared to be almost filled with potted geraniums, she exclaimed with what seemed like disgust and distrust, "Visitor, Bert," and to me, "This would be the esteemed Mr. Bertrand Burr, Mr. Shannon. He ain't a day over ninety. Don't believe anything he tells you. I'll leave the two of you together..." and, in an aside to me, "for as long as you can stand him."
There in a wheelchair, bent almost in two by arthritis and other maladies, sat a wizened old man who looked every bit of the one hundred and ten years he claimed to be. His face appeared to be filled with fury, his eyes hot and blue as an Arizona sky. He had a wrinkled little head that trembled ever so slightly as he looked me up and down. His skin give the impression of being very much like worn out oilcloth; and his arthritic hands resembled bird-claws.
Did I mention that he was filthy, and smelled something awful? He had soiled his pajamas from both ends. I glanced at the nurse with a question on my lips, but she answered me before I got it out.
"Does it all the time... likes to annoy us. We take him into the bathroom like clock-work, but he'll wait until he gets back to the room here, and then let go of either his bladder or his... well, you know. Just to spite..." she paused, obviously wanting to say "me," but finished the sentence with -- "us."
"How 'bout you do your god dammed job, and clean me the fuck up?" he spat out.
The nurse stiffened, and I detected a fear come over her as she took a step backward.
"Got me a witness, nursie," he said; a mean glee dripped from every word. Without another word, the furious nurse spun his wheelchair around and wheeled him into the oversized bathroom. Ten minutes later, she wheeled him back out. He fairly gleamed with freshness, and the foul odor that had clouded the room earlier was now gone.
The nurse had more to say about his poor behavior, and I listened until she ran out of words, turned on her heel, and shut the door firmly behind her.
"Aw, she just gave me a lick and a promise, that's all," he said wiping some drool from his mouth with the sleeve of his right hand. "See them elastic stockings she wuz wearing?"
I shook my head. I hadn't noticed them.
"She wears 'em 'cause of her very close veins."
He means varicose veins, I told myself. Then I met Burr's rheumy eyes, and said, "I'm looking for a former big-league ballplayer by the name of Harbidge. Would you be him?"
"My name's Burr, Bert Burr. I might know something about baseball, but I ain't anybody named... Harbridge."
"I'm looking for a man goes by Harbidge. That's spelled H-a-r-b-i-d-g-e. He played with a couple different teams before the turn of the century."
"Did he now?"
"You look it up, did you?" He licked his lower lip, and I felt my stomach cringe. Was he always going to be this difficult? I wondered.
"Let me start over, Mr. Burr."
"Please do," he said, and cackled, "I'm waiting to hear your preposition."
"Find me funny?" I was wondering if his malapropisms were deliberate or accidental.
"Nope," he said answering my question.
"You sent me a letter, Mr. Burr."
"What are you incinerating?"
"I'm not insinuating anything; I'm here because you answered my advertisement in the Sporting News about a ball player named Bill Harbidge who played for the Hartford team among others."
"Got the money?" He replied, finally getting to the point.
That told me he was, or at least knew who I was looking for. In response to his question, I asked, "I need proof before I give you any money, Mr. Burr."
What kind of proof?"
"For starters, I believe you met a man... a very unusual man who changed your life."
"I'm a hundred ten years old; I've met plenty of unusual people in that time."
I felt a kind of bump just then, and looking around saw nothing that might have caused it. I took a deep breath, realizing that he had just attempted to take possession of me. Arthur had been proven correct. I was grateful to him for preventing just that from occurring.
All this took place in mere seconds. Trying not to show him that I thought anything was awry, I said, "I'm referring to the person who gave you a certain power."
Burr's blue eyes flickered, was it from remembrance of their actual meeting? Or was it that perhaps for the first time his attempt to take over someone's mind and body had failed? In any event, I kept my face from sending any helpful signals to him.
He smiled, and I was surprised to see he was in possession of most of his teeth.
There was another bump. I looked at him and smiled back.
He nodded, as if satisfied about something. I assumed I had passed his test, for he said, "Oh, you mean the shifting?"
"I don't know what you mean by 'shifting.'"
"How 'bout, I met a man from Venus."
"A man from Venus?"
"Well, all right, I don't know where the fuck he wuz from, but it wasn't this planet!" he spat out at me.
"Are you speaking about an... alien?"
"I ain't talking about no menstrual show!"
"You mean minstrel show, don't you?"
"Don't go getting a brain conclusion over the way I talk, Mr. What's-your-name."
"It's Roy Shannon, Bert."
His blue eyes seemed to glow and I realized my mistake in not calling him Bill.
"Yeah, yeah. It's the pills. I gotta take these big pill everyday and drink a lot of water 'cause I got trouble with my probate.
"Did you mean to say, prostrate?"
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever...."
"Alright," I replied, "let's get back on track. You met an alien, and...?"
"Show me the money."
"I don't have the money with me, Mr. Burr. I can arrange for the money to be delivered to you when you satisfy me that you are the person I am looking for, and after you tell me your version of the story."
His eyes glowed even brighter and I willed myself to use Bill... to always use that name or prepare to suffer the consequences.
"You ain't flush are you?"
"Rich, you ain't rich, are you?"
"No, I'm not rich. I'm a writer; I was working for the Chicago Tribune, now I'm working on a novel."
"You're asking me to take you at your word?"
"Yes, I am."
"Get the fuck outta here!"
Ignoring him, I asked, "How did you learn I was looking for you?"
He cackled and some spittle drooled from his mouth. "Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on!"
"Like that word, do you?" I said, trying to turn the tables.
"Love it," he replied, denying me my wish to reverse matters.
I decided to take another course with him, and reached for my fedora, and carefully fixed it on my head.
"Nice meeting you, Mister whoever you are. Well, so long, I have other fish to fry." I turned to leave. I got as far as opening the door before he called out, "Wait up!"
I stopped and turned to face him, I kept my face steeled against revealing my true emotions to him.
"It wuz very nice of you to look me up."
"You're a very hard man to find."
"I know. That's why I wrote you."
"I'm going to call you Bill."
"Why not? It's my name... at least when it began."
His eyes lost the glow, returning to the rheumy blue that I'd noted on first meeting him.
"By now I've had a hundred or more names. Can't recall a lot of 'em, at least not so easily."
Opening my notebook, I glanced down and said: "I know you were born in the middle of the 19th Century that would make you ninety something, and not a hundred and ten. Just how old are you?"
"It doesn't matter, Roy," he said, using my name for the first time. "I take on the age of the person I adopt. That's the way it works. Of course, this time, I aged another fifty years after a month or so. Actually, I'm about a hundred and forty years old at the moment."
I realized his speech had noticeably improved.
He looked at me, smiled, and said, "Got all my teeth too, see?"
I ignored him, and asked, "Who was the last ball player you used?"
"I'd prefer to answer that later; it might confuse matters just now. Let's just say there wuz a number of 'em and leave it at that."
"How did you get to be the person you are now?"
"Same way as everybody else,' he cackled; and then appeared to sober. "Truth is I got tired of the ball playing. I decided to call it quits, and picked up on Mr. Burr here. He's got a couple months left in him," his shoulders sagged even more, and his rheumy eyes seemed to tear up as he added, "Should be long enough to tell my story."
"So you're not really after any money," I said.
"Nah, I wuz just bulldozing you. I got all the money I need. Always had all I needed. Just change with a banker, or a millionaire, siphon off some information on whatever they're working on to fleece the public at the time, and use it to feather my nest. I got personal accounts all over the place, but unlike W. C. Fields, I got 'em written down so I won't forget. Heh, heh, heh."
Reaching into his pajama top pocket, he pulled out a plug of tobacco and bit off a sizable chunk, chewed it for several seconds and turned his rheumy blue eyes back to mine, waiting for my next question.
"How did you get started in baseball, Bill?"
He coughed, and spat a wad of tobacco juice into the cuspidor next to his left foot. I had to give him credit for accuracy, or maybe it was just luck. I expect he'd perfected his aim over time and stopped thinking about it while awaiting his response.
"Loved the game since I wuz a tike; seemed like everyone wuz playing it. All day long, soon as we'd got done with our chores. Some of us got so we wuz pretty good."
He wheezed, coughed twice and then spat a thick gob of phlegm into the cuspidor without bothering to look. There was a soft "Ping." Damned if he wasn't right on target.
"I wuz born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the grand old year of 1855. I'm told there wuz about two hundred and fifty thousand people living there at the time. I grew up in a nice two-storied wood frame house, typical of the time. Many of the things we take for granted now weren't even in existence -- the telegraph, telephone, express companies, ocean steamers, city delivery of mail, postage stamps, and even street cars, hadn't arrived. Omnibuses crowded the narrow streets getting in everyone's way, including their own. Even the railroads had yet to really develop into anything close to what they are today. Most freight moved through the canals back then.
"Anyway, my Father, bought a hotel... well, rented one anyway about when I wuz turning thirteen. I can still see the long spaces of the lobby, where forty people could sit, in contrast to the little parlor of the house I wuz born in. It had tall brass cuspidors, an enormous dining room, with printed menus; at least for Sunday dinner; and there were unending rows of bedrooms, with no less than four bathrooms.
The building itself wuz three stories of brick, and an entrance that still fascinates me - not just a door flush with a wall - but right on the corner, cut diagonally across.
Oh, I met a lot of people. All kinds, too, traveling men in sporty vests and ascot ties; actors and actresses, who I wuz warned under penalty of a strapping to stay away from. Had us a bar too, but my job, or jobs, wuz doing what no one else wanted to do; scrubbing floors, wiping dishes, cooking the eggs for breakfast; all before galloping off to school.
He wheezed, and then sighed, recalling a particular segment or moment of his long ago youth.
"Don't expect you're interested in my kiddy ball days. Guess you want to hear about how I got to the big leagues, eh?"
I nodded, not wanting to break his concentration.
"Wuz a Sunday in the summer of '71, had to be a Sunday, 'cause they didn't play big league games on Sundays; especially in the City of Brotherly Love. But we amateurs did. Hell, we got paid good money - a dollar a game for me to catch, and Randall Beals, our pitcher, got two bucks.
Course they would pass the hat around the crowd, and some days I got as much as two bucks for myself. This easy money attracted some of the Philadelphia Athletics, and they joined in with us. Sometimes we even got some players from the visiting team who wuz in town to play them on Monday.
"The Athletics happened to be the best team in baseball that year. 'Course it was a close race, with the Red Stockings eventually finishing second. I seem to recollect that because the Kekiongas, out of Rockford, Illinois, wuz forced to fold after two of their best players, Bobby Mathews and Tom Carey defected; and others following soon after, they wuz without any players. So their unplayed games wuz forfeited.
I forget exactly how it worked. Of course, late that season there was that famous fire in Chicago which destroyed the Chicago team's ballpark, most of the player's homes, and even worse, the banks with their life savings. The boys from Chicago were demoralized and lost most of their remaining games, which, of course, helped the boys of Philadelphia.
"Anyways, one particular Sunday, I met up with, and played alongside some big leaguers; them being: Levi Meyerle, who hit .492 that year. You heard me, he hit .492! Of course they only played 30 odd games that year, and there was that "fair/foul rule helped.
Count Sensenderfer, wuz another good hitter, come with him. The Count played center field, and Meyerle walked out to third base and claimed it from our regular third baseman, Rudy Radcliff, who moved to left field. And a fella named Bob Ferguson, from the New York Mutuals joined us and played some first base. I didn't know it then, but Ferguson also managed the New York team, and would be instrumental in signing me a couple years later.
"We played a game and beat our local rivals, the Bulldogs; and I suppose I had a decent game behind the plate. Randall threw a four hitter and I had three singles, and in the fourth inning I drove in what proved to be the winning run.
"Meyerle had four doubles and Ferguson a single that would have been more had the Bulldogs right fielder not made a great play and throw; and in his last at bat, he tripled to right. I felt I'd impressed them, since my hits and theirs were all we got off the Bulldog's hurler that day.
"I remember it pretty good 'cause after the game I happened by Ina Claire Hodge's house; oh, I wuz love-sick over her alright. Her father, Truman Hodges wuz the best druggist in the city as far as I knew; that made him the same as a doctor, and while he wasn't rich, he wuz an upstanding member of society. Me and my family wuz on a lower tier in that social circle and I knew I didn't stand much of a chance of winning Miss Ina Claire Hodge's heart."
"In school, Ina Claire sat only three desks from mine; and just looking at the nape of her neck everyday I'd fallen volcanically in love with her. She wuz a tall wench, with a high old laugh, and rich chestnut hair, which she had started putting up long before any of the other girls in school. Anyway, she knew I wuz crazy about her 'cause some snooty bitch sent her a note saying so.
"We had happened to meet at several parties, and I got to waltz with her some, and it happens that I waltz pretty good, but wuz clumsy trying to caper through the figures of the square dance -- 'Grand right 'n left, sashay all' -- shit, I wuz dreadful at it.
"Aw... she wuz my Helen of Troy, you know? I mean, I wuz entirely vague about what I wanted to do to her. I'd never thought more than dare to dream about sitting next to her on the steps of her front porch.
And there she wuz, sitting on the swing on her front porch as I happened by.
"I said, "Hello, kind of cool, ain't it?"
She replied, "Yes, it is kind of cool."
Then I surprised myself and said, "You all alone tonight?"
"Yes, all alone. I guess nobody loves me."
"Gee, I do, all right." And I wuz beside myself at being able to reveal my true thoughts about her this easily.
"Oh, you do, do you? Well you never come around."
"I got my work at the hotel, Ina Claire. You know I have to help out."
"You must get off sometimes," she pouted.
"Well, I gotta play baseball, too."
"Why do you have to play baseball?"
"It's darn good money, that's why."
"If you wanted you could get away and come to see me,' she said wistfully.
"Would you really like it if I came over?"
She tossed her head, and sniffed, "It don't make me no never-minds, smarty. I guess you don't want to come, or maybe you like baseball more than you like me."
"I can try to get off work and maybe miss a game now and then."
"Well, if you manage to get off once in a while, then maybe I'll believe you want to."
"Well, would you like to go for a buggy-ride with me this Sunday afternoon?" I didn't bother to mention the Sunday baseball game would start just before noon, probably end by two in the afternoon. I knew Ina Claire went to church and didn't get home until around three.
To my surprise, Ina Claire weakly peeped, "Oh, I'd like it, but Pa and Ma wouldn't stand for it."
They wouldn't mind it if you came here, right under their noses, but they wouldn't let me go riding with you."
"Why the heck not?"
"I didn't want to tell you, but they don't exactly approve of you. I mean, your Pa's a saloon keeper."
"He is not! He runs a hotel! True enough we have a bar and all, but..." I didn't know what else to say, the inequality of our social status had never really come between us before.
"Thinking I might never see her again under these circumstances, I wuz emboldened and said, "Then how about given me a kiss right now? You know, being there ain't anyone else around and all?"
"I wuz stunned beyond belief when she said, "Oh, all right."
"I leaned toward her lips, mechanically like, but received no mechanical kiss from her. Ina Claire's mouth wuz like hot cream; it wuz not the sensation less mouth like the chilled lips of the schoolgirls I'd kissed at parties and such, but had a tense, skilled life of its own."
"I shook with astonishment and bewildered emotion, and did not draw away from her until she pushed me away with a hand to my chest, laughing. "Now there, how did you like that?"
"I loved it."
"That's for asking me to go on a buggy ride with you."
"I'd like another," I said plainly and directly.
"Not here. Someone might see."
"Let's go into the barn, then."
"You want me to go into the barn with you?"
"Sure, why not?"
"It's not very clean in there for one."
To my surprise it took only two or three more minutes to persuade Ina Claire to accompany me to the barn. We climbed up to the loft, providing me with a glimpse of her ankle and even a smidgen of calf.
Ina claire quickly agreed to another kiss, and that led to another and another. I wuz emboldened enough by this point to ask her to let me see her breasts, which had been pressed against me non-stop throughout our kissing.
"No, I shan't let you see them," she said after thinking it over. She and I were both breathing heavily. I had already gotten further with Ina Claire that I had any right to expect, and so what she said next, floored me.
"You may feel them if you want," she said breathing even heavier than I was. She didn't need to tell me twice; I wuz cupping one of her delightful boobies with one hand, and squeezing the other, and listening to her soft moans.
I had me a boner of gigantic proportions and wuz about as uncomfortable as a man could be under the circumstances.