Monday, December 11, 2006

Chapter 12

He had not been close. What was supposed to have been an out for the opposing team had turned out to be a home run. Casey saw Sidney get up from his box a few sections over and knew he had to get out of there. Grabbing Anne’s hand, he darted to the concourse and disappeared into the crowd. They took seats in some empty bleachers in leftfield. He knew they could not go home that night, so they stayed in a hotel, fearful and restless and keeping their eyes on the door. There was no one to turn to, nowhere to hide, and no visible way out of the mess. Sidney was irrational, vengeful, the worst type of person to have a problem with. Casey thought about the movies again, thought about what people like Sidney could do to a nobody like him, and he grew scared. He convinced Anne to come with him to Chicago for a few days until Sidney had time to settle down. It was the weekend, anyway, and she was ready for a break from the sweltering Cincinnati July. In Chicago, they could go to the beach, relax, and pretend their problem did not exist for awhile.

Daniel was more than happy to put them up for a few days. His apartment was much more luxurious than someone who worked for a non-profit should have had, a spacious place with a large wall-length window overlooking the blue of Lake Michigan. He had a full guest bedroom with its own bath for Casey and Anne to stay in, and the kitchen was something out of a magazine. Casey had thought it impressive the first time he visited, but he had not thought about how odd it was for someone like Daniel to live in such a place until he heard Anne comment about its beauty.

Over dinner that night at a pizza restaurant (only in Chicago could they make pizza fancy), Casey decided to tell Daniel the real reason they were in Chitown. Actually, it was the beer that decided for him, but he needed to get it off his chest anyway. As any rational person would react, Daniel did not believe such an incredulous story. Feelings? Magic powers? You’re drunk and making up stories. No, I swear it’s true, isn’t it, Anne? Yes, it is. How else do you think I can afford not to work? I concede that your story about this Sidney character is plausible, even if you have embellished. So you’ve been making your money on gambling? Yeah, I’m ashamed to admit it. Betting on baseball, hmm. Didn’t realize there was much money in that during the regular season. I can help. How? I know people who make their living protecting those who make a living from gambling. Really? Yeah, I can put a couple down in Cincy for you, pay this Sidney character a visit. Oh, that would be great.

Casey and Anne were both able to relax for the rest of the weekend, convinced they would be safe when they returned to Cincinnati. Casey tired of Anne’s complaints about walking the city to see it. She wanted to take buses, was not up to exploration. She wanted to sit on the beach all day, forget the city. But Casey was restless and ready to discover what the city had to offer, so he left Anne on the beach while he traversed the concrete jungle, conquered it. It was just too bad he had to do it alone. She was grouchy at night, too, wanting to spend long hours at dinner instead of going out on the town. She rejected his bid to go see Second City, rejected the blues club he wanted to visit, rejected going up to Wrigleyville for a few beers near the stadium. He found himself rather bored by her.

Fortunately, their time in the city was short. They argued on the way home about petty things like how he spent time to himself and how he had complained when he did not get what he wanted. It wasn’t that he wanted his own way all the time, he said, but that he at least wanted to do some of the things on his list of things to do, but she rejected nearly every one of them. She was controlling, he said, too demanding. He was reckless, she said. The last couple of hours of the trip consisted of angry silence, and Casey slept on the couch that night.

He was still angry when she left for work in the morning and did not want to bring her to the game that night, so he called Nathan, whom he had not spoken with since he quit his job. Nathan’s voice was filled with anger towards Casey but he was so desperate for company at a ballgame that he said he would go to the game. Casey wasted his day doing nothing in particular, playing a few meaningless computer games, doing a crossword puzzle, reading a chapter of a baseball book, taking an aimless walk around downtown…he stopped in front of Marin’s store and stared at the window displays for a long enough time that he could have seemed suspicious to anyone who watched him. For several minutes he debated about entering the store and in the end decided to do so. She was not there. She did not work there anymore. His heart sunk.

Leaving Nathan’s ticket at Will Call, Casey entered the stadium as soon as the gates opened at Great American Ball Park. Ball Park – ballpark was not two words. It bothered him severely that the insurance company had botched the name of the ballpark. It was a sign of stupidity, of corporate carelessness, of apathy towards quality. At least the name of the company was something bearable for a name, not like Minute Maid Park, Petco Field (reminded Casey of dog food), or U.S. Cellular Field. Value City Arena, where Ohio State plays basketball, is by far the worst name. It makes the team sound cheap. These names show how much corporations have replaced people as the basic element of society. In the past, stadiums were named for people, usually the evil owners, or something mundane like Municipal or County. But now, an entrance to a park screams BUY ME!, sticking wretched corporatism into the heart of nostalgia that baseball brings. Casey thought of the discussions about baseball he had had with older men, who recalled with fondness memories of visiting Griffith Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field. Just mentioning those stadiums lit up their eyes and took them back to days of innocence. Imagine sitting at a ballgame on a Sunday afternoon far into the future, when your old bones are tired and you are reflecting on your life as it nears it’s end. Who’s going to say, “Ah, I remember the days at good old AT&T Park…” There is nothing romantic about that. Besides, the parks change their names so often, you won’t even be able to call it anything. Naming rights have stolen the nostalgia from us, taken away some of the joy of our memories before we have even had a chance to create those memories!

For the first time in a long while, Casey wandered the stadium, peering at the field from each level and each side as if he were inspecting it for the first time. He was searching for the love. He was searching for that heart racing feeling he used to get when he looked out at the field, diamond green glistening under a day game sun or glowing under stadium lights. He longed to feel his spirit aroused by the smell of ballpark hotdogs seductively massaging his nose and making him smile. He tried to hear the echoes of crowds past, crowds future, the ghosts of memories that would haunt the stadium until its early destruction. Modern stadiums had shorter lifespans than the memories created in them, as they were no longer revered cathedrals but glass and steel thatched huts destined to be blown down by the corporate wolf at our doors. The boyish enthusiasm he once had in seeing the players take batting practice, even as he entered his thirties, was gone, his spirit unmoved by neither sight nor sound nor any sensation. Was his soul dead? Were the baseball gods punishing him for his transgressions against the game? Would he ever step foot in that cornfield in Iowa, or was that just another meaningless movie to him?

Oh, wretched pain, cursed reality! The sins of the world had swallowed him, he had broken each of the ten commandment in his lifetime, but not with malice. It was the world that had turned on him, not the other way around. He had not chosen to go to war. He had not chosen to meet Sidney. He had not chosen to meet his IRA cousins. Oh, god, that was what Daniel was up to, wasn’t he?

He bought a beer and took his seat, interested in watching people interact with the environment, with each other, and with themselves. He wondered how many of them were mired in serious thoughts or if some of them had no thoughts at all. Were there some who were spiritually aware of what was around them, any who understood the significance of each moment in time, any who cared about more than just eating or finding a mate? He cursed them all, blamed them for their selfishness, their apathy, their wretchedly simple minds and hearts. These were soulless beasts, were they not? Was it possible there were people who existed without souls?

Nathan arrived to interrupt this fit of misanthropy. Casey looked at him and his tray full of food with disgust. Such a contemptible creature, he thought. What a boor. What a waste of breath. Nathan carried two beers, handed one to Casey, an act that immediately disarmed his disdain, though not without a fight. Funny how such little acts of kindness, or a simple apology, could alleviate such tensions and bad feelings one could foster against another human being. Too bad there weren’t more of them.

Nathan was fascinated about the details of Casey’s trip to Ireland, a genuine, fantastic interest only a man who rarely stepped outside of his home and office could generate. He kept saying “neat” and repeatedly wished he “could go on a trip to a place like that.”

“Just go then,” Casey said after losing patience with these incessant wishes.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just too…far.”

“What kind of excuse is that?”

“Well, it’s just that I don’t have anyone to go with.”

“Go alone. I did.”

“But you have better social skills than I do. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it. I’d just feel lonely if I went by myself.”

“So what, you’ll continue to wallow in your loneliness in your tiny apartment, shut off from the outside world?”

“At least I know what to expect.” Casey said nothing for a couple of batters, and Nathan responded to the silence with his own anxious version of it. The Reds hit back to back doubles to score a run. Something deep within Casey, perhaps the vestiges of his love of the game, must have stirred when that run crossed the plate to the crowd’s roaring delight.

“Tell you what. I’m going back during the off season to spend a couple of months. Why don’t you come over for a week? I’ll show you around Dublin City.” Nathan’s eyes exploded into flames of happiness, but he could find no words to say. His instinct was to find excuses, but he badly wanted to go, and he did not want Casey to change his mind.

“Ok,” he said, knowing that Casey did not like when he became excited.

“Alright then, there’s something for you to look forward to.” The Reds scored another run, and Casey’s mood lightened a little, until he saw Sidney coming towards him. His first thought was to run, but Sidney’s face was worried, not menacing. Daniel’s people must have gotten to him.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute,” he said as he timidly approached the seats.

“Sure. Hey, Nathan, I’ll be right back.” He noticed Nathan’s dejected look. “Don’t worry, I’m not abandoning you.” The two went up to the concourse.

“Hey, look, I just wanted to let you know I’m sorry. I won’t bother you again. I didn’t realize you were with the Republicans.”

With the Republicans? Would he be able to fly on a plane again?

“No hard feelings, huh? See you around,” Casey replied as he tried to sound convincing about being part of a group he wanted no part of. He returned to his seat.

“That was quick,” Nathan said relieved.

“Told you.”

“I’m going to get another beer. You want one?”

“There’s a beer guy coming.”

“Nah, I want something that tastes good.”

“Ok, yeah, sure, I’ll take one.” He felt like he had a servant rather than a friend, not a good feeling during a time when he probably needed the latter. Later, when he was walking home from a rather impressive victory, it occurred to him that he had never told Anne he wanted to go back to Ireland during the off season, that he really had not known himself that he wanted to go. Maybe he would split the winter between Dublin and see Britain, too, or maybe France or Germany or another part of Europe. Sure, why not? Then it occurred to him that he no longer had any money flowing into his bank account, and that he would run out by next spring. Frugality could give him a couple of months more, but he would have to find a job. Perhaps Neil could get him one in Dublin.

Anne was furious when he returned to the apartment. She had not really wanted to go to the game, but since he had gone without her without seeing if she wanted to go, she found herself angry at him once again. They argued again, as they did for the rest of the season. Only the thought of how he had longed for her when they were apart kept him from asking her to move out, that and the fact that she was paying half the rent, which helped to prolong his dwindling savings. Their quarrels were fueled by the August heat and persisted despite the lack of any real issue to argue about. He went to the ballpark to get away from her, not because his love for the game had returned. There was an emptiness where joy had once been, a bitterness that replaced love and contentment, and pessimism wracked his outlook on his once cherished life. Strikes, balls, outs, home runs – what did they matter? Why had he spent so much time on something so frivolous? Why had he considered the game of baseball as poetry, as art? Each beat of his tempestuous heart brought him further from the game, further from Anne, and further from the world. War. Corporatism. Racism. Inequality. Greed. Apathy. Paradise lost.

The world swirled around in the bottom of a glass or a bottle. Late nights, stumbling home, fighting, rage, the headaches, the heartaches, days blending together, staying in bed, September’s song playing on, third place, empty October, damn Yankees, help me get out of this Hell. Have to find that field. Need break. Hope you enjoyed your journey, and thank you for flying Aer Lingus.

He left her there, left her in his apartment wondering how much more she could take, thinking the break would do them well, perhaps mend the holes in their hearts, mend the holes in their lives. She let him go, continued on with her life knowing that he would return in a couple of months. She would be there waiting for him at the airport like she had when he touched down the last time, and things would be good again, perfect again, contentment would reign, spring would renew them and their world.

It was good to be with family again, he thought as he ate a bite of Eva’s cooking in the modest house in the Dublin suburbs. Could I be happy with a life like this? Do they ever go through what I’ve just been through? He had picked up some new video games for Neil Jr., who had grown several inches in the last year. It happens so fast, you know. You do not notice time when you are young. A day is long enough, a year is an eternity. But the death of childhood, of innocence, winds the clock too tight, makes it rush forward, spinning without regard for those who cannot keep up or those who need to stop and catch a breath. This boy was a startling reminder of the vertigo caused by time, how time was the true dictator of men, how in an infinitely small measure of it, time can come to an end, and it does for all of us. Men were fools, tricked into believing that just yesterday something had happened that had actually occurred years ago. Reentering Dublin was like waking up one morning in the city – he felt like no time had gone by – but a half a year had passed, a whole baseball season, from its innocent birth in the warm southern states to its glorious (or vainglorious, in the case of the Yankees) death in the midst of autumn’s cool nights. He would not have known had he not seen the boy. He would have pretended that he was keeping up with the pace of life. Maybe it was the wonder of seeing how grateful the boy was for the gifts or the innocence he saw in his eyes, but Casey remembered how much he had cherished ever sip of air he had been blessed with, every glimmer of sunshine, every beat of his fragile heart. Something resembling joy began to rise in him, but it was gone by the time he returned to the hotel he was staying in, replaced with that same bitterness that had brought him here in the first place.

He spent more time at Neil’s house than he had during the previous winter. Eva was teaching him how to cook, although at first, Casey wondered if bland old Irish cuisine were the best place to start. In keeping with Irish stereotypes, a potato dish was served with every meal. Eva, however, had a knack for spices. Her father had been an officer in the British Royal Air Force and had been stationed in India for two years during World War II, absorbing the ways of the Indians and bringing home exotic spices. Ah, war makes the world go round…

Neil called everything she made “curry.” Casey did, too, until he learned that there was no such spice as curry, that a “curry” was actually a blend of spices and there were many different types of curry. Just like people, Casey thought. The yellow curries used turmeric, a spice that stained everything it touched. Cumin was another common ingredient – it smelled like wildflowers sprinkled with pepper to him. There was garlic, lots of garlic, and ginger, fenugreek, and anise. She used nutmeg and mace, both derivatives of the same narcotic. A rainbow of dried peppers went into every dish, reds, yellows, greens, blacks, sitting in mounds like an artist’s palette, each distinct flavor melting into one big pot, not segregating themselves, not fighting, but blending together to create one intoxicating taste and an incredible aroma that took over the house.

During the second week in January, as the Western world was recovering from weeks of holiday insanity and trying to find its way back to normal, Casey decided to visit Padraig in Belfast. Padraig seemed odd on the phone but insisted it was not a bad time and that Casey would be welcomed to visit, so he caught the train to return to the city of a dying conflict, as he viewed it, not quite dead, heart still beating, but laying on its death bed on a legislative table in Stormont. What a strange name to house a legislative body carved in peace – ironic, even.

After sleeping peacefully on his first night there, he woke to an unseasonably clear, warm sky, something familiar, a September kind of blue, ready to spend the day snapping photos of people who were beginning to get used to peace. There was some resistance to his photography, some frowning, some refusal to be photographed, fear-worn faces, anxiety and worry in some of the older eyes, but in the youth, he found something different. It had been ten years since the peace agreement, enough time for children who had not known the violence to play with each other in streets and parks. He did not see the same broken hatred, the same ideological drive, the same pain and weariness. No, he saw hope. He heard them laugh and saw those laughs in their eyes. He saw kids with Celtic jerseys playing kids with Rangers jerseys, some on the same team.

As he watched some of these kids in a park in the city, the despair that he had been carrying seemed to dissolve into the hope that he witnessed in them, and a small flame, something like faith in the future, crept up within him. Maybe someday we could truly have peace, he thought. Probably not in his lifetime, or any time during the next generation, but the hope made it all worthwhile, didn’t it? All of those efforts towards peace, the endless talks, the occasional arguments, the billions of dollars spent trying to stop conflict, the peacekeeping forces, the compromises, the treaties…It was worth it to try, because as long as there were people in the world who wanted peace, there was hope. He looked around him and saw the world with a clarity he had never before experienced. It was like watching a film, looking at a set consisting of office buildings, restaurants, caf├ęs, pubs, cars neatly aligned on the sides of the streets, birds singing in trees, people walking with somewhere or nowhere to go. He focused on a restaurant/pub called The Dove, a place that seemed to be full of people, probably both Protestants and Catholics, given the name. He picked up his camera and took aim at the place, put his finger on the button, and pressed down.

His camera captured a fiery storm of brick and glass and wood raining down from the blue sky. The peace had been breached.

The camera snapped photo after photo of this act of war, broken bodies, oceans of blood, every ounce of bitter fear, floodgates of damned up pain, of tragic memories, of hatred, wrath, vengeance. In between photos, he covered bodies with table cloths, held the hands of the wounded, tied tourniquets, put pressure on wounds, cried with people, for people, his tears leaving trails on his ash-stained face. He pulled as many people out of the building as he could, grateful for his Army experience and those countless hours of combat lifesaver courses. Still, he snapped. He captured images of broken wine glasses still hanging from above the bar, a cracked and blackened Guinness mirror mounted on a wall, a broken light fixture above a splintered table, mounds of lunch strewn across those who had been enjoying it. He could not refrain from counting. There – a table of four. There – two, another four. Four, three, a person who had died alone, a table with bodies too disfigured to count how many, four, three, two, twenty-five, thirty…Could not count anymore, police had arrived, paramedics, the investigation team, years of experience, out of practice, years of vacation come to an end. Casey kneeled beside a woman whose leg had been severed just below the knew. He had tied a tourniquet for her. He held her hand as paramedics made their way through the rubble to her. More ambulances arrived, more sirens rang out over the city. The woman’s fear succumbed to shock as she disappeared behind the ambulance doors. Casey found a man about his age with a gushing abdominal wound. He put pressure on it, slowed the bleeding until another batch of ambulances arrived. With them came the vultures known to the apathetic as the media.

News vans arrived in droves, complicating matters, blocking ambulances until they were threatened with arrest. Predictably, the Americans were first, but they only won by a nose. A paramedic came over to take the bleeding man away. “Thanks, mate,” he said to Casey. “Your help means everything.” Casey nodded, then moved to the next guy, who had a foot long piece of wood lodged in his chest. There was no way he was going to make it, but Casey did not want him to die alone. “Tell my wife…Martin Brady…please.” As Casey held the man’s – Martin’s – hand with tears of rage streaming down his face, he looked up at the sky and realized where he had seen that blue before – a beautiful September day in 2001, New York City, the day the world went mad.

A policeman came up to Casey and tried to make him leave, but the paramedic who had thanked him yelled, “It’s ok, he knows what he’s doing, and we need him.” Another batch of ambulances arrived, so many ambulances. Had Belfast no end to its ambulance supply? As he held the hand of a now unconscious Martin, he grabbed his camera with his free hand and continued to snap photos as respectfully as he could. The comfortable world had to see what war was like. America had to see it. They had to learn it was not a sporting event to wave flags and paste ribbons and wear the colors on sleeves.

When the last of the living had been taken away, Casey, weary from the stress of battle, quit the scene to a darkness he thought he had left behind in the wretched deserts of Babylon. The wounds of the world were gaping open. He slung his weapon around his neck – his lens – and returned to his hotel room defeated. Before attempting sleep that night, a feat he knew would be impossible, he got online and sent his photos to every major news outlet in the world.

In the morning, he had a new career. He also felt he had a new black mark on his soul: war profiteering.

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