Mighty, Mighty Mickey Mantle|
by Ryan Heryford
From the highway, Indiana in February looked like my backyard when I was six and drank a carton of milk and puked all over the bushes. And Katie was driving too slow, her hands rattling like a toaster about to explode, and it was all I could do to lean my body out the rear window, firing my cap gun at the man in the Chrysler driving behind us. And he was looking at me kind of strange. He put up his hands and flashed some signal, but it was hard to see with the glare coming off the snow banks beside the road. It was really fucking sunny.
"Please Kevin, will you just put the gun away, buckle your seat belt, and roll up the window."
Katie was a bitch, and I am sure she still is. But I suppose she was my girlfriend, so I bought her flowers sometimes, and once I wrote her a song, even though I don't play an instrument and I would rather croak than try to learn.
The dweeb in the Chrysler honked his horn at me.
"Get in the left lane," I said, "so I can get a clean shot off."
"With your frickin' cap gun?"
It had a yellow handle and an orange barrel, but the paint was wearing off, so it was really just a gray barrel with orange stripes. Chuck Hoover had given it to me when I was eight, because I had just seen some movie about a man with a head like a bear and big metal claws, who pulled people out of their beds at night and ripped their guts from their stomachs. I was certain that this metal-clawed-bear-man would be coming for me in my sleep, so I spent the next few nights at the foot of my mother's bed.
Chuck Hoover was my mom's best friend, and he was my best friend too, and when my mom told him about the movie and the nightmares, he slapped me upside the back of my head and told me there were no such things as men with claws, unless they had their hands blown off in war. And then he took the gun out of the packaging and stuck a ring of caps in the barrel.
"It's only got six rounds," he said, "but you can buy more at the Seven-Eleven. They sell them for a dollar."
He cocked it and handed it over to me.
"That way if things aren't working in the world as they ought to," he said, "and if guys with claws really do start coming for you at night, well then I figure this gun will also start to working like a real forty-five, shooting off real bullets, and you can knock those fuckers right down on the floor."
I pointed the gun toward the ceiling and pulled the trigger. The bang almost threw me into my mom's coffee table and there was smoke all over the place. And for a second, I was sure that I saw a big old bullet hole up there, but it was really just some water stains from the leak in our roof.
Three cars were honking now, and I could tell that Katie was going to cry.
I threw the cap gun at the dashboard, rolled up the window, and sprawled out across the backseat of my mom's car, wrapping my arms up under Mickey Mantle's jersey, the one with the blood stains over his signature.
It was the jersey that Chuck Hoover had bought at a charity auction for kids with no legs or something like that. He bought it with the money he had been storing up from his job digging graves for dead people, and it was framed with thick glass casing. He hung it on Margaret's bedroom wall, the woman he was in love with at the time. But after a month or so, he came home from work and found Margaret with another man's dick inside of her. And Chuck Hoover got so angry that he took the jersey off the wall and smashed the thick glass casing over the guy's face.
Margaret threw him out after that, and he went back to live in his old apartment where he kept his jersey crumpled like a mildewed rag in the back of his coat closet. No one ever saw it again, until my mom and I came to clean out Chuck Hoover's apartment after he croaked.
The only thing I ever really liked about Katie was her short blond hair, and she was pulling at it like a fucking lunatic, shouting at me about missing school and her AP tests and how we weren't going to reach Oklahoma anytime soon, and we would have to pull over and find a place to spend the night, but we were too young to rent hotel rooms, and we would have to sleep in the car, and it would be cold, and we were almost out of gas and only had sixty dollars between the two of us, and as far as she was concerned we might never make it home again.
We were crossing into Illinois and there were more clouds in Illinois to block the sun, which was setting anyways. I rolled up the jersey, soft like a pillow, and laid it under my head. I closed my eyes wishing that Mickey Mantle hadn't lived so far away.
My mom wouldn't tell me how Chuck Hoover had died, but I knew. I imagine that I knew more then, than she will ever know.
The service was on Sunday. No one really showed up. Margaret was there with her new husband, and there were a few of Chuck Hoover's friends from the bar beneath Pizza Roma's where he used to go and drink whiskeys.
My mom sat in the last pew drinking from a jug of red wine and eating out of a bag of stale wafer cookies she had found in the basement of the church. The preacher had a lisp and a stutter and sounded like a run down machine-gun. He was talking about how our lives are really time spent backstage, waiting for the curtain to rise so that we can go out and perform for god. The only ones crying were Margaret and one of Chuck Hoover's bar friends, who I think had brain damage, and probably didn't know why he was crying anyways. The sun was so bright and it was breaking through the stained-glass windows, right onto the left side of my neck. The whole church smelled like cat urine.
After the service, Chuck Hoover's whiskey drinking friends carried the coffin down to a burial plot behind the church. My mom was drunk, so I grabbed hold of her left arm. She was holding Chuck Hoover's Mickey Mantle jersey. I was holding a white rose.
I opened my eyes and crawled into the front seat. They were leather seats and they smelled like my dead grandfather who had left the car to my mom, and I set my hand down on Katie's shoulder, because I felt sorry for her, having to drive me all the way to Oklahoma without telling her father, who thought I was crazy anyways, in the car I stole from my mom, with seats that smelled like a dead man she wasn't even related to. She took my hand in hers and tried to put it in her mouth, but I pulled back, liking the smell of old saliva even less than dead grandfathers.
"I'm nervous," she said.
I picked up the cap gun and searched through my pockets. I was all out of ammo. I had one shot left. Katie hadn't had her license for more than a few months and she had never left Ohio, and the puffy spots under her eyes were darker than the blues under the clouds outside.
"We can get off at the next exit," I said, "and find a place to get some food and sleep."
Katie put her fingers between mine and squeezed at my knuckles.
"Thank you," she said, "I mean…I'm sorry, I'm just so tired, and it'll only be an hour or twos drive tomorrow." Then Katie smiled this smile that she has, which I like so much, but could never really explain to anyone. "I'm sure Mickey Mantle is sleeping by now anyways," she said.
When I told my mom about my plan, she looked at me like I was a lunatic, like she didn't understand. But I had just figured, with Chuck Hoover dead and all, that the world wasn't working as it ought to. It was like the metal-clawed-bear-man was coming right out of the closet for me, and not just one, but thousands of these metal-clawed freaks were charging at me from all angles, and I had started sleeping at the foot of my mother's bed all over again. And even though my cap gun was still just firing off caps, I knew that something had changed. And when my mom and I were cleaning out his closets and I found Chuck Hoover's Mickey Mantle jersey, I thought, 'Well, that's just it!' So I looked everything up on the internet. Mickey Mantle lived in Spavinaw, Oklahoma.
"You are not driving ten hours away to try and get a shirt signed by some dead baseball player," said my mom, "You don't even have your goddamned license." She tossed the jersey into a black duffel bag with the rest of Chuck Hoover's clothes.
"We'll bury it with the body," she said, "that's the way he would have wanted it."
"Not with that fuck's blood on the signature," I screamed.
My mom put her hand on my shoulder because she thought I was going to cry, when really I was just angry.
"Why don't you save up some money and buy a new jersey?" she asked.
But my mom never really got the point. She was great at doing the dishes and making me dinner and calling the gas and electric companies when our hot water stopped working, but she never really put it all together, she never really got the point. Katie understood.
"Whose Mickey Mantle?" she asked.
"He's a baseball player," I said, "He lives in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. I need you to take me there so I can get him to sign Chuck Hoover's jersey, again, because that's the way he would have wanted it."
I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it a little, and then I kissed her cheek.
"I love you," I said. I didn't mean it, but I knew that once I said it, Katie would take me.
We got off the highway somewhere in Illinois or Missouri, I really can't remember, and drove through a McDonalds. I hate McDonalds, but Katie was hungry and it was the only place around. The man behind the menu machine asked Katie what we wanted to drink.
"I want a coke," I told her.
"I want a coke, too," she said. "Let's get a big coke with two straws and share it."
"I want my own coke," I said.
Katie giggled like a drunk monkey. "Come on," she said, "it will be cute, like we're married." She turned to the menu machine. "One Biggie-sized coke."
"It won't be like we're married at all," I said, "it will be like we're too poor to buy our own cokes." I leaned over her lap and stuck my head outside the window. "Two small cokes."
"Why do you have to be such an a-hole?" Katie asked. Giggling again, she ran her hand through my hair.
I crawled into the back seat and hid my head under Mickey Mantle's jersey.
My mom had been drinking in bed, so I drove to the church. Katie was there, but she wasn't dressed in black and her shirt smelled like Old Spice. I walked over to her like I was about to give her a hug, like I was so goddamned sad and just needed someone to hold, but I was really only slipping the car keys into the back pocket of her jeans.
The coffin was set on a green felt electronic board in front of the tombstone. The preacher said a few words, maybe a prayer, no one was listening. It was all we could do to shield our eyes from the sun, shining so bright above the steeple. I heard a noise like a shotgun shot. The car was running and Katie was inside it, on the road outside the graveyard. The green felt board shook and the coffin shook and everything slowly began to lower into the dirt pit. One of Chuck Hoover's bar friends set an old whiskey bottle on top of the coffin as it moved into the grave. Then Margaret came to the edge of the pit and threw down a bunch of lilies. My mom went next, laying Mickey Mantle's old jersey gently on top of the coffin. I walked up with my white rose. I laid down the rose and placed my right palm on the wood. I never noticed how close I was then to Chuck Hoover. I grabbed the Mickey Mantle jersey off the coffin and ran. I leaped over headstones like they were hurdles in my high-school track meets. I didn't look behind me until I was in the back seat of the car and Katie had started driving, but the sun was in my eyes and I couldn't see if anyone noticed what I had done.
We drove another mile down the road, finishing off our burgers and cokes, and then pulled into a quiet parking lot hidden behind a big glass building. I got out of the car and opened the trunk, where I had hidden the few wool blankets that I stole off my mother's bed. Katie lifted the levers at the sides of the two front seats, laying them down as far as they would go. These would be our beds for the night.
I laid myself down across the passenger's seat and I told her that I was going to sleep.
"I'm not tired," she said. "Can we stay up and talk?"
"No," I told her. "It's hard for me to sleep when we're talking."
Katie giggled and threw her body, over the divider, on top of mine. She tried to get her tongue inside my mouth, but my teeth were all closed up. She ran her hand up under my shirt, over my nipples, and dragged her lips across my cheek, up under my ear.
"Stay up and love me," she whispered.
"Get the fuck off me," I said.
Katie hummed, soft in my ear and bit down on the lobe. She started shoving her crotch back and forth into my belt buckle.
"Please Kevin," she whispered, "I love you, I love you." Her hips were tearing into my fucking ribs. "Please Kevin," she whispered again, "I love you. Love me." She ran her tongue down my cheek, down between the hairs along my neck. I was trying to grow a beard. She started twirling it in small circles around my Adam's apple. She started moaning like a dying bird. And then louder, like a dying cat, louder, like a dying hound dog, all the while thrusting her crotch at me, full speed, shoving my belt buckle up into my belly button.
"It's going to be alright," she moaned, "just love me, Kevin, it's going to be alright."
I grabbed her shoulders and tried to throw her into the dashboard, but she was stronger than me. She leaned back and pulled her shirt up over her head. I tried to tell her that she was a fucking psychopath, that of course it would be alright, that there was nothing wrong that needed to be alright except for the big dent that my belt buckle was making in my stomach, but as I opened my mouth to speak, she grabbed me by the back of my hair and shoved my face into her left breast, and with her nipple up against my teeth, all the words came out in broken garbled tones.
I started biting as hard as I could on her nipple, sucking it deep in between my teeth. I was digging my knuckles into the small of her back, trying to break her spine, trying to make her hurt, make her stop, but she just kept on moaning, louder now, like a lion wounded in the savannah. She just kept on shouting nonsense bullshit.
"Love me, Kevin," she shouted. "You don't need to speak. Don't speak Kevin, just let me feel it. Let me feel that you love me." She reached her hand down between our crotches and started pulling at the zipper on the black pants my mom had bought me for Chuck Hoover's funeral. My dick was hard, but I wished that it wasn't. I just couldn't help it with all the rubbing and bouncing of crotches. I reached my arm over behind my seat and grabbed the cap gun. I stuck it up between her breasts. I pulled the trigger.
There was smoke everywhere, and for a second I thought I saw her heart, bruised and bleeding like crazy, but still beating, and I felt so sorry for her ever having known a boy like me.
She starting coughing and I starting coughing, and she slapped her hand across my face, cutting my left cheek with her fingernail.
"What the fuck, Kevin?" she shouted. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" She put her shirt back on and threw open the car door. She slammed it back shut, when she was outside, and she sat down on the curb between the parking lot and the big glass building, crying into the space between her knees.
I took her blanket and threw it over mine. I closed my eyes and went to sleep. I was warm, but sad as hell.
When I woke up Katie was already on the highway, but it wasn't sunny at all. There were clouds covering up the whole face of the sky.
"What time is it?" I asked, pulling my seatback up.
"It's noon," she said. Her voice was hollow and dead. The puffs under her eyes were bigger than I had ever seen. "We'll be there in an hour."
I tossed the blankets on the back seat and grabbed the Mickey Mantle jersey and put it in my lap.
"Do you think your mom called the cops?" Katie asked.
"My mom's a drunk," I said. "She didn't call anybody."
"I bet my father called your mom, and I bet he called the cops," she said.
"We'll they're not here now."
I saw a sign for Spavinaw, Oklahoma, thirty miles up the road. Katie was shaking and I wanted to apologize, and I didn't know what for, but before I could speak, Katie told me that she was sorry.
"It's just that…it's just that we've been so close for so long," she said, "and we've never done...that…and I'm going to be leaving for college next fall, and I guess…I guess I just wanted to know that it all meant something, that we really were this close."
"Well, it wouldn't have meant anything, anyways." I wanted to be sympathetic, but I think that it came out all wrong, because Katie got upset.
"I realize that, Kevin. I really do understand." Her voice was growing louder and as shaky as her hands. "I really do understand that none of this has ever meant anything to you." She took a long breath and then started to calm down. "I guess that I just thought…Well, you told me that you loved me, and you seemed so excited about this trip, and I thought that maybe things were different than I thought."
"We could try it again tonight," I said, "and if you want to pretend that it does mean something…well, I'm alright with that."
"Sure, Kevin." Her voice was so dead that I could have buried it right then. "That sounds great. We'll try it again tonight."
Spavinaw, Oklahoma might have been an awfully pleasant place in the sunlight, but under the shadows of the clouds the whole place looked like a graveyard. There was an old race track and a playground with no children and all the cars in the town seemed to be parked outside the Seven Eleven. Katie was trying not to cry as we drove through town, but it wasn't working, and every so often she would burst into a few small sobs.
And then we came to Mickey Mantle's street. We drove to the end of the block. Katie saw his house before I did. And when she saw it, she wiped her eyes and started smiling.
It was the first time I had seen her smile all day. It was that smile I had been talking about, the one that I can never describe. It was the smile she gave me when we first met, the smile she flashed when I first showed her my cap gun, when I told her about Mickey Mantle. It was her smile that let me know that she really did get the point of it all. And when I saw her smile like that, it got me to thinking that maybe we really were in love and I just hadn't been paying any attention.
"Why don't you get out and go find Mickey Mantle" she said. She was still smiling as she spoke, even though there were tears in her eyes. "I'm going to go find a place to park and then I'll meet you inside."
When I was eight I think I saw God. My father had left a year before that, not that I really remember much about him, other than the beard that he was always cutting away at with scissors and the neckties that my mother tied for him in the mornings before work. My mom had started drinking then too; not that she hadn't been drinking before. It's just that she had started drinking wine and she was drinking it in her bed in the mornings and in the afternoons as well. And Chuck Hoover had just come into town, because the lumber mill where he had been working in Pennsylvania shut down, and he had remembered my mom from high school, so he decided to come live near her and make a new life for himself. Not that I was thinking about any of that when I saw God.
I was in the kitchen and it was late and all the lights were out. There was a big pot full of tomato soup on the stove that my mom had made for dinner. Chuck Hoover was upstairs talking with my mom and I could hear their voices like they were little birds at the feeder outside. I poured a bowl of the soup and stuck it in the microwave. I could hear my mom crying and Chuck Hoover was trying to calm her down and their words were slurred and I knew that they were both drunk. And when I put the bowl before me and sat down at the kitchen table, that's when I saw God. He was staring at me, His face was right in the soup, or maybe it was a She. I can't describe the face at all; it's too much for me to ever explain, like Katie's smile. But it wasn't pleasant, and it wasn't enlightening at all. It made me scared and it made me think about all these things that I had never thought about before, things that made me cry, that made me cry like hell. And I was crying so loud that Chuck Hoover could hear me, even though he was all the way upstairs, drunk in my mother's bedroom. And he came down and turned on the lights and then God was gone, and it was just my reflection staring back at me in the tomato soup. He could tell that something was wrong, but he didn't ask what. He just came and sat down next to me at the kitchen table and started talking about nonsense, about baseball maybe. And I can't say why, but I knew right then that we would be best friends forever. And I used to think about that memory every day, and it used to make me feel so safe. But when I thought about it sitting there on the curb outside Mickey Mantle's house, and when I think about it now, I have to think about the funeral and the trip to Oklahoma and my mom and her car that smelled like my dead grandfather and Katie with her smile and all her love, and the whole memory gets so fucked up and distorted, and it makes me sadder than ever to know that it will never be pure again.
I was sitting on the curb for over an hour before I realized that Katie wasn't coming back. The house behind me, the one I had come to, had a big white cloth sign with blue letters that read: 'Welcome to the Birthplace of Mickey Mantle." There was an old woman at the doorstep selling tickets to go inside. There was a little boy with a Yankees jersey and a woman, maybe his mother, was holding his hand. Another man came outside holding an autographed bat, but I'm sure it wasn't authentic.
I never went inside. I left the jersey, sitting there on the curb, and walked down the street to the Seven Eleven. It was the early afternoon, but the sky was dark and I figured that it would start to snow soon. I bought another round of caps and headed further down the road to an old race track that I had seen earlier. I figured that I would either blow out my brains or just shoot a few bullets through the clouds so I could see the sun.
Ryan Heryford was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. His stories, poems and essays have been published in Preface, Vagabond, Hear My Voice, and now JMWW. Two of his favorite books include John Fante’s Ask the Dust and Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. This story is dedicated to his mother.
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