Wade wondered who it was that Josh Jackson needed to visit in Stockton but didn’t press for details now. He hoped it was not the pal who’d gotten him arrested. He arranged to pick up Josh at this apartment later and went to speak briefly with Allenby.
“Stockton, huh? Is your life insurance paid up?”
The seat of San Joaquin County had made national headlines by joining Akron and Detroit among the most violent burbs in the nation, and anyone could be a target. A high-end crime spree there was three thugs phoning in an order, ambushing Domino’s delivery boy, beating him half to death, and stealing his pizzas.
“I hear the local gangs don’t usually shoot up funerals,” Wade said. “Weddings, birthday parties, picnics in the park, toddlers in the street, those they cater to pretty regularly, but—”
“I’m not so worried about gangbangers taking you out. They pretty much keep to their own kind. I’m more worried about your ex. Does the phrase ‘Hell hath no fury’ ring a bell? Are you sure you’re prepared to see her on her turf?”
“At least I can leave when it’s over.”
“It’s never over with an ex.”
Wade shrugged. “Josh Jackson’s coming with me, by the way.”
Allenby blew out a sigh. “Just make sure you don’t get him killed, too. You we could probably replace with a phone call or two; him the baseball team is going to need in the playoffs.”
“Duly noted. It’s nice to be appreciated.”
“Don’t let it go to your head. Are you taking that deathtrap Japanese shitbox of yours, or is Josh going to—”
“That’s a tale for another day,” Wade said, heading for the door. “Did you know Cammie Sanchez is back in town?”
“Oh, crap.” Allenby sank into his chair, shook his head. “Don’t come back to this office until you have some better news to report, understood?”
Tommy will be in the ground when I get back. News didn’t get much better than that.
Wade picked Jackson up and they hit the road, running into construction delays almost immediately. California’s bill for deferred maintenance had fallen well past due, and anywhere you went on the Central Valley’s bombed-out war-zone freeways these days, a back-up was almost inevitable.
“You been to Stockton much?” Jackson asked, as they emerged from one slow-down only to run directly into another.
“Not for a while,” Wade said. Stockton was the largest city in the state not to have its own state university main campus, if you didn’t count Oakland with UC Berkeley right next door. Wade hadn’t spent much time there in recent years except to attend a few conferences at the majestic, immaculate campus of the University of the Pacific, which by comparison made CSU’s look like a spittoon. “I’ve got some fond memories, though.”
In large part because of its standing in the homicide race, Stockton had been regularly ranked in recent surveys as the most miserable city in the nation. Residents of coastal cities especially were apt to turn their noses up at this and other outposts in the Central Valley, but in spite of his predestined allegiance to the professional teams bearing (sometimes duplicitously) its name, Wade didn’t think San Francisco had anything better to offer, other than food, if you could afford $100 a plate for a “small plate” that wouldn’t satisfy a flea. Driving to SF at rush hour, he felt, should qualify for combat pay, and parking on even the average day in paradise required specialized skills on the order of those possessed by Delta Force or the SEALS. Once he survived the transit and paid through the nose for a place to leave his car where it was likely to be stolen or violated, Wade inevitably found the celebrated city by the bay filthy, noisy, and now, more than ever, with the profusion of indigents relieving themselves in the streets, stinky. He’d read with something approaching disbelief of a recent plan to coat city surfaces popular among public urinators with a type of paint that reflected the stream back onto the source. This was the best idea that the city planners could come up with to cope with the homeless—to have the walls pee back on them? It reversed the thinking of the equally brilliant stadium builders who in the new ballpark had vetoed the venerated troughs in the men’s rooms for sanitary reasons, to prevent a bit of backsplash. Wade remembered the good old days when twenty or thirty men could pee in unison, side by side in liquid harmony, a splendid symphony of relief. Now you had to stand in line for half an hour to get within range of a urinal. On his last visit to the ballpark, Wade had been trapped for a time behind a splenetic type with a still-foaming beer in hand as he waited to expel the previous one, until he abruptly disappeared; Wade wasn’t altogether certain than his anguished fellow micturant hadn’t dumped the beer and peed into his cup. This had become a definitive San Francisco memory.
Then there was the weather. Twain’s epigram about the coldest winter of his life still resonated. Wade also remembered from earlier days, growing up on the South Peninsula, many times driving to “The City” with his family on what had begun as a perfect 85-degree day. By the time you reached San Francisco, the temperature had dropped by 30 degrees, and by the time you were ready to go home, you were battling hypothermia. At the old ballpark the Giants had resorted to issuing the Croix de Candlestick to reward those brave or crazy enough to stick to the bitter end of night games that might as well have been scheduled in Siberia.
Stockton, like the site of CSU and other Central Valley cities, though it could be fog-ridden in January and hot and dusty in the dog days of summer, was often glorious. Spring and fall were spectacular, and Indian Summer in a good year could last nigh unto Thanksgiving. All but the hottest of true summer days turned into balmy, walkable evenings. Winters were mild for the most part, especially by contrast with those in Madison, Minneapolis, and other frozen midland cities somehow typically ranked far higher in “livability” surveys. Wade wondered if such surveys included the lucky souls who had to dig their vehicles out of a snowbank in minus-20 degrees at dawn before taking their lives into their hands on the icy road to work, every day for months at a time. Or those who had to outmaneuver mosquitos the size of baseballs in humidity that never diminished even when the summer sun finally went down. Wade had spent enough time in other places to know that living in interior California beat the hell out of living almost anywhere else. And, whatever its reputation among shivering or sweltering pollsters, Wade still held a sentimental attachment to Stockton.
“That the Giants you listenin’ to? How they doin’?”
Wade had the ballgame on the radio at a low volume. He turned it up a tad now, and they heard Posey push a single to right field to drive in the game’s first run.
“Smart hitter,” Jackson said. “Don’t try to pull the ball when they pitch him away. Anybody can learn from that dude. He be a manager some day, I’ll bet.”
“You might be right,” Wade said. He was ready for Buster to take the reins right now. He wasn’t certain that someone who made the kind of money the Giants’ catcher was earning now would feel the need for gainful employment when his playing days were done, but he had a hunch the game was too deep in Posey’s bones for him to give it up then. “Maybe you’ll even get to play for him.”
“That would be cool.”
They listened in companionable silence as the game unfolded, the Giants playing their typical plodding station-to-station game on offense, and on defense catching everything hit on the ground. In deference to his passenger, Wade resisted the temptation to tune out as the inevitable inanities piled up. Sometimes, when he was alone, he twisted the knob so violently that he risked injury to both the equipment and himself. Once the game was over, of course, the real horrors began. If he bumped into a call-in show, Wade couldn’t listen for more than a minute as the vainglorious program hosts interrupted and vied to exceed the moronity of their astoundingly ignorant callers. If television was a vast wasteland, radio was a cesspool at the wasteland’s anus. Being stuck with the same announcers on either medium for the World Series was torture on the order of anything the shining lights at Abu Ghraib had come up with. If the Series reached the splendor of a seventh game, by the time you had endured the insufferable pomp of Joe Buck for ten days, you never wanted to hear another human voice as long as you lived.
Once they were back underway, a road sign noting the short distance to their destination, Jackson turned the subject again to his home town: “One thing about Stockton, we got some hot women there.”
“Well, the only woman I really know there wouldn’t exactly fit into that category, but that’s always good to hear.”
In counterpoint to the misery index reports, Wade had also read a newspaper article citing a national survey claiming for Stockton the highest percentage of beautiful women of any city in the country. Other poll-takers must have somehow failed to take the pageant into consideration. Although it was not the kind of “news” Wade generally paid attention to or placed any faith in, he mentioned the study to Jackson, who hadn’t read it but had seen for himself.
“The races all mixed up there. Got a lot of girls half-Asian, half-Mexican, or half-black, half-Mexican, shit like that. Lot of hot Filipino girls, too.”
“Wouldn’t be one of those you’re going to see by any chance?” Jackson had remained cryptic on this subject, and Wade hadn’t wanted to pry.
“High school, there was one really fine girl, part Filipino, part Vietnamese. I thought she really liked me. We was friends, then we went out for awhile. But then she met this Chinese guy was goin’ to Pacific, gonna be a pharmacist. Her whole family like fell in love with the dude. They didn’t never want to see me around her again after he come along. He be makin’ a lot of money someday.”
“You’ll be making a lot of money someday, too. Someday soon.”
Jackson nodded. “But a pharmacist, that’s steady, that’s every month. You get that license, you set for life, thirty, forty years. A ballplayer, you never know. You blow out your knee, your arm if you a pitcher, you done in a minute. Look what happened to my football season.”
“You could be a pharmacist,” Wade said. “You’d just have to take—”
“All them science courses? Shit, that stuff ’bout fry my brain. I was lucky to make it through biology in high school. Girl I was tellin’ you about, she my lab partner, help me out quite a bit in there. Chemistry, I bet that shit would kick my ass.”
“It’s a tough course,” Wade, who had never been inspired to take it himself, said. “But I’m sure you could get through it.”
They neared the Starbucks where Jackson had indicated he wanted to be dropped off. Wade tried again: “All I’m saying is, you’re not limited to sports. You can do a lot of things.”
Wade didn’t see anyone waiting there. Jackson started to step out of the car, then stopped and turned back toward Wade.
“I appreciate you sayin’ that. I never heard shit like that from my father.”
Wade nodded, felt for maybe the millionth time the swell of gratitude that came from having had himself a dad who knew what an encouraging word could do. You could forgive a lot, even the mortification of being the only kid on the block who couldn’t ride a bike, when the trove of better memories kicked in.
“Good luck with your . . . visit. I’ll give you a call when I’m ready to head back.”
“Deal. Good luck with your ex.”
“Why in the world would I need that?”
WHERE TRIPLES GO TO DIE is available here.
Phil Hutcheon graduated from University of the Pacific and has taught at Delta College since 1990. He is the author of four novels, A Child Left Behind (Tokay Press), Rooting for Goliath (Tokay Press), Desperation Passes (Tuleburg Press), and Where Triples Go To Die (Inkwater Press).