Read an Excerpt
"Who's next? Gil on the car phone? What's shakin', Gil?"
"Is this . . ."
"You're on the JOC."
"Am I on?"
"Not for long, Gil, the way we're going. This is supposed to be entertainment."
"Got a question or a comment for us, Gil?"
"Fantabulous. What's on your mind?"
"I'm a little nervous."
"What's to be nervous? Just three million pairs of ears out there, hanging on your every word. What's the topic?"
"I like the way you say that."
"How do I say it?"
"Like--what else could it be?"
"What about the Sox, Gil?"
"Just that I'm psyched, Bernie."
"Bernie's off today. This is Norm. Everybody gets psyched in the spring. That's a given in this game. Like ballpark mustard."
"This is different."
"I've been waiting a long time."
"What's special about it?"
"It's their year."
"Why so tentative?"
"Just pulling your leg. The way you sound so sure. Like it's a lead-pipe cinch. The mark of the true-blue fan."
"The Vegas odds are--what are they, Fred? Fred in the control room there, doing something repulsive with a pastrami on rye--ten to one on the Sox for the pennant, twenty, what is it, twenty-five to one on the whole shebang. Just to give us some perspective on this, Gil, what would you wager at those odds, if you were a wagering man?"
"Everything I owe."
"Owe? Hey. I like this guy. He's got a sense of humor after all. But, Gil--you're setting yourself up for a season of disillusion, my friend."
"I know what disillusion means."
"Do you? Then you must--"
"They went down to the wire last year, didn't they?"
"Ancient history, Gil."
"And now they've got Rayburn on top of it."
"Rayburn, Rayburn. Sheesh. Everybody wants to talk about the Rayburn signing. He's not the Messiah, good people. He's not coming down from heaven with a Louisville Slugger raised on high. On Opening Day, he's flying in on the team charter from Orlando, plugged into his Walkman. Puts on his pants one leg at a time, just like you and--"
"For Christ's sake, he--"
"Can't say that on the air, Gil. And I can cut you off by pressing this little button right here."
"Don't. The kid's--"
"What kid? He turns thirty-two in July. That's middle-aged in this--"
"--averaging a hundred and twenty-three RBIs for the past three years playing on that piece of--"
"--dung outfit--can I say dung?"
"--they've got out there. What kind of numbers is he going to put up in the bandbox, and with that sweet swing of his?"
"Who knows? Check out the record on free agents, my friend, especially the happy-go-lucky ones taking home the cabbage he signed for. Not so sweet, honeylike swing or not."
"Why are you so g--"
"Don't get ugly, Gil. Come on now. 'Fess up. You honestly in the bottom of your heart believe he's worth what they shelled out? Answer me that."
"Hello? Hello? Lost Gil. Let's go to Donnie, downtown. You're on JOC-Radio, Donnie, WJOC, fifty thousand nonstop watts of clear-channel sports talk, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. What's shakin'?"
Gil parked his 325i a block from the office, thinking too late of things he could have said to Bernie, or Norm, or whoever the hell it was. Order book and sample case in hand, he stepped out onto the icy sidewalk as the first snowflakes drifted down around him, hardly bigger than dust motes. It didn't look like the start of a major storm, didn't feel like the beginning of a bad day. Two teenaged boys slouched by, caps pulled low over their eyes. They noticed his license plate--WNSOX--and he heard one say, "Yeah, right."
Gil bought a Lottabucks Kwikpik and the Sporting News at the ground-floor newsstand and skimmed the training-camp reports on the elevator. There was a photograph of Rayburn smiling beside the batting cage. The caption read, "Banking all those RBI'$." Gil folded the paper and slid it into his coat pocket.
Ding. Five. Gil walked down the hall, the floor sticky under his feet. The company's office was next to Prime National Mortage, which had been vacant all winter, and another suite, without lettering on the door, tenantless much longer. He went in. Bridgid was at her desk, unwrapping a bouquet of roses. She pricked her finger, said, "Ow," and sucked on it.
"Hi," Gil said. "Tickets in yet?"
The company had season tickets, two box seats halfway down the first baseline, eighteen rows back. The reps divided them according to a complicated formula that was revised every season and this year had alloted Opening Day to Gil.
"Have to ask Garrity," said Bridgid. Was there something funny about the way she said it? Funny enough, anyway, to register with Gil in passing.
Gil entered the conference room. Sales meetings began at eight sharp, second Wednesday of the month. They were all sitting around the table--the eleven other Northeast reps, and Garrity, regional sales manager. The room smelled of after shave. Garrity's eyes went from Gil to the wall clock, as though he were willing him to look at it too. Gil looked. 8:04.
He sat down. Figuerido, area six, just west of his, rolled a tube of Lifesavers across the table; the kind with all the flavors. Gil took one--cherry--and rolled them back to Figgy. Breakfast.
"How's the Beamer?" Figgy asked in a loud whisper; Figgy was stoked on Gil's wheels.
Gil made a hand movement like a car speeding down a winding road and sucked on the Lifesaver, waiting for Garrity to get on with it. Garrity always began with a gloomy summation of how they were doing, followed by an uplifting anecdote from his past about how he'd come up off the canvas when all hope was gone and fought his way to victory, hawking vacuum cleaners in Southie or some shit. That was to inspire them before he handed out the new quotas. But Garrity wasn't on commission now, he was management, and management had no idea what it was like out there. That was fact one.
Garrity's phone buzzed. He picked it up, listened, said "Yup." He turned to the door. O'Meara walked in. O'Meara was the national sales manager. He flew in from Cincinnati once a year, took them all to dinner. But a year wasn't up since his last visit; and it wasn't dinnertime.
"Welcome, Keith," Garrity said, rising.
O'Meara ignored him. He made a little beckoning motion with his finger--at Waxman, at Larsen, at Figuerido. They followed him from the room. Figgy forgot his Lifesavers on the table.
"Bonus time already?" someone said. No one laughed. December was bonus time; besides, you had to make quota first, and who was doing that?
Silence until O'Meara returned, followed by three people--white males, like Waxman, Larsen, and Figuerido, dressed in $150 suits like Waxman, Larsen, and Figuerido, but not Waxman, Larsen, and Figuerido. O'Meara introduced them. They took their places in the empty chairs. The one who sat in Figgy's glanced at the Lifesavers but didn't touch them.
O'Meara moved to the head of the table. Garrity slid out of his seat. O'Meara could have been Garrity's upwardly mobile son, better fed and better educated. He put his foot on Garrity's chair and leaned over the table. "Guys," he said. "I've seen the figures." He paused. Gil smelled someone's sweat. Not his: he was cool and dry, not sweating at all. In fact, Gil's mind wasn't even on whatever was about to go down. He was remembering an at bat he'd had against the Yankees, one he hadn't thought of in years. Man on second--must have been Claymore, Gil could still see him, red hair, freckles--last ups, two strikes, two out, one run down, pitch on the way. He almost felt the sunshine.
O'Meara had brightened suddenly, as though struck by an idea. "Unless it's a misprint," he was saying. He turned to Garrity. "Any chance it's a misprint?"
"Wish it was."
"Me too," said O'Meara. "Because these numbers suck." He sat down; Garrity drew up another chair beside him. O'Meara paused again, and in that pause met their gazes one by one. He had small green eyes, set deep in crowfooted pink pouches. "Oh, I know what you're thinking--what a prick, expecting us to sell into this manure-pile economy, expecting us to compete with those Japs gobbling up the whole fucking business. Am I right?"
Nods from the three new men, various facial expressions from the others, nothing from Gil.
"Hit it on the head or what?" said Garrity.
O'Meara didn't respond. He held up his index finger. His hands were small and plump, not even big enough to grip a baseball properly, Gil thought with contempt. "Let's take the economy first. Does the expression self-fulfilling prophecy mean anything to anybody?" His eyes fastened on Gil. "Renard?"
"Nope," Gil said, almost adding, Maybe it means something to Figgy.
"You were going to say?"
O'Meara didn't take his eyes off him. "The thing is, Renard, all the pissing and moaning about the economy swells up into one big pig of an excuse. Self. Fulfilling. Prophecy. If the economy sucks, well, hell, how can I be expected to beat my quota, or even meet it, for Christ's sake? Not my fault, right? So you don't even try anymore, and then the economy really is in the toilet. Like lemmings, right? Whoosh. Boom." He gestured out the window. It needed washing. Beyond it gray flakes, fatter now, swirled out of a dark sky. "That's the beauty of our system, curse and beauty at the same time. We control it. Us. Guys like you and me, the folks in this room, up to our elbows in the machinery. We're the ones who can make the economy whatever we want."
Gil watched the snowflakes. A fastball, it had been, low and away, but too close to take. He'd slapped it to right, past the diving second baseman, whose name he couldn't recall. He remembered the pitcher though: Bouchard, the Yankee ace. And he remembered the roar of the crowd as Claymore scored the tying run and he himself went all the way to third when they overthrew the cutoff.
"Let me give you an example," O'Meara said. "Would you stand up, Verrucci?"
The man who now presided over Figgy's Lifesavers rose.
"Verrucci's come up from Texas to lend a hand for a while in area six. Mind telling us your take for the month of Feb?"
"Feb just passed, Mr. O'Meara?"
"That's right, Verrucci."
Verrucci named a figure Gil had never touched, not even when things were steaming during the Reagan years.
"Pay much attention to the state of the economy, Verrucci?"
"Don't have the time, Mr. O'Meara."
O'Meara laughed. "Ignorance is bliss." He studied his audience. "Still with us, Renard?"
Gil nodded, thinking, Texas, that explained everything.
Verrucci was still standing. "Thank you, Verrucci. Sit down." Verrucci sat, picked up the Lifesavers, peeled back the wrapper, and popped one in his mouth.
"Enough philosophy," O'Meara said. He raised a second finger. "Which brings us to the Japs." He smiled. "I think we've finally got something that'll help you with them." He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a knife. It was a tanto, about eleven inches, with a six-inch blade and a red-white-and-blue-checkered polymer handle. He held it high, like a king leading his men into battle, then nodded to Verrucci.
Verrucci left the room. O'Meara took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve, and passed the blade lightly down his forearm, shaving off an inch-wide strip of wiry, rust-colored hair. It fell on the open pages of Garrity's appointment book.
Verrucci returned with a car door. Japanese?--Gil wondered. Verrucci laid it on the table. O'Meara opened his briefcase, took out a claw hammer, positioned the knife a few inches below the door handle, and began pounding on the pommel. Pounding hard; a sweat stain spread over his right armpit, and his face pinkened in pleasure. Ten blows--Gil counted them, too many--and the blade sank down to the choil. With a grunt, Verrucci stood the door on end, showing the tip of the blade protruding through a speaker grille inside. O'Meara jerked the knife free, extended his forearm, cut another swath. Garrity watched the wiry hairs falling on his appointment book.
O'Meara passed the knife around the table. "Say hello to the Survivor," he said. "State-of-the-art workhorse of our new state-of-the-art line."
"A new line?" someone said.
"The Iwo Jima Experience," O'Meara replied. "Doesn't that say it all?"
The reps hefted the Survivor, ran their thumbs across its edge, balanced it on their index fingers. All but Gil: he just handed it on to the next man. But that was enough to tell him that the Survivor wasn't state of the art, or even an improvement on the rest of their product: two or three grades below that. Blade too thin--quarter inch, when similar Japanese models were all five-sixteenths; pommel too small; light in the handle, indicating a half tang hidden in there. The spec sheet followed: 440 steel, acceptable, if inferior to the Japanese, and hardened to 61 on the Rockwell scale, an impressive number, but much too hard for a survival knife. Better, though, than junk; and maybe some buyers would go for that flashy handle.
The Survivor came back around to O'Meara. "Who thinks they can sell this baby?"
"Banzai," said Verrucci.
"That's the ticket," O'Meara said. "Renard?"
"Depends on the price," Gil answered, thinking: why me today?
Wholesale. That kicked retail to $70, $75, even $80. Would the Survivor sell at that kind of price? Gil had no idea. He didn't know why any of their stuff sold at any price.
"What's the commission?" Gil said.
O'Meara made a face, as though he didn't like talking about money. "Twelve and a half."
"For a new line?"
"Cincinnati thinks it's more than fair. Any objections?"
There were none.
"Then let's get it done."
O'Meara packed up his claw hammer and left for the airport. Garrity handed out new catalogues that included the Iwo Jima line, gave them each a Survivor for their sample cases, and wished them luck. The reps filed out, all except Gil.
Garrity blew O'Meara's hairs off his appointment book.
"Tickets in yet?" Gil said.
Garrity studied the ruined car door, still lying on the conference table. "What am I going to do with this fucking thing?"
"Bridgid said to ask you."
Garrity looked up. "No tickets this year, boyo."