The Jim Palmer Fastball
The Jim Palmer Fastball
The year was 1973. It was the last Saturday night of Winter Break for students of Woodridge High School – customarily a night for drinking and partying and trying to forget school was coming Monday morning. Garrett Dutter, a sophomore, and Fishhead Straley, a junior on his second go-round, pulled into the deserted parking lot of Mel’s Diner. Garrett killed the engine of his Chevy pickup and Fishhead handed him a beer.
“You sure anything’s going on tonight?” Garrett asked, popping the tab of the can. Save for them, the parking lot was empty.
“Give it a couple minutes,” Fishhead replied.
According to him, Mel’s Diner was the appointed meetup place for hopeful teenage party-goers for two reasons: it was always open, and the wait staff didn’t mind catering to drunken teenagers. Students of Woodridge High ("Mostly the upperclassmen, you wouldn't know them") would meet there and carpool to whatever party, then come back and eat exorbitant amounts of fried breakfast foods to sober up enough for their drives home.
Tonight, however, Mel’s Diner was closed, as was nearly every other store in the town of Woodridge. A hard snow had fallen the night before and well into the morning, and the roads were iced over by the bitter cold that hung in the air throughout the day. On the local radio station, disc jockeys warned drivers to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary; most of the residents were bundled warmly in their homes, even diner owners who advertised 24-hour a day service.
“I don’t think anyone’s coming,” Garrett said after ten minutes had passed. Without the engine running, it was freezing in the cab of the pickup truck, and his stone-washed jean jacket provided little warmth. They hadn’t seen another car on the roads, and he didn’t think they were likely to.
“Jesus Christ, would you give it a few minutes?” Fishhead argued. “I told you I already talked to Sid McNally and Turtle, Amber Wales’s parents are out of town and she’s – “
“Amber Wales is out of town with her parents, dumbass. Everyone knows that – “
“You don’t know shit about shit, kid.”
Garrett scoffed and downed the rest of his beer, as much to get warm as to catch a buzz.
Fishhead said: “Why don’t you turn on the heater, you stingy fuck? I’m freezing my ass off.”
“You got some gas money?” Garrett asked.
Fishhead grabbed two more beers from the case by his feet and held them out, by way of answer.
Garrett grunted and started the engine. He resolved to drink another beer, at least – if they didn’t see anyone by the time he finished, he was leaving, with or without his best friend.
As luck would have it, a pair of headlights came into view a few minutes later.
As Sue Gauthier navigated her minivan through the snow-covered roads to meet up with her lover, a phrase kept repeating itself in her head: lying, cheating whore. In her mind’s eye, she could see it painted on the wall above her side of the bed in deep scarlet letters.
She shook her head, trying to erase the image from her mind like an Etch-A-Sketch. For the most part, it worked, and the image was replaced by that of Harold, her smiling lover.
She kept driving towards him.
The affair had started innocently enough. Harold had been her manager at the local Denny’s, where she waited tables three nights out of the week. He was sweet and charming and knew how to talk to the wait staff without lording his position over them. He even picked up tables now and then, when they were especially understaffed or had a big dinner rush after Thursday night bingo across the street.
Everyone liked him, including Sue, who for the first time in her life - at the ripe age of twenty-seven – was experiencing a severe deficit in the Male Attention department. Harold talked to her, for God’s sake – which is more than she could say for her husband. They often started talking in the parking lot before work and didn’t stop until the end of the night. Though their words were only spoken in brief passing, a few here and there, each thread of the conversation intertwined seamlessly into the next, and it seemed that they never ran out of things to say to each other. And the way he looked at her – oh, how she would catch his eyes wandering over the parts of her they shouldn’t have. It was thrilling.
At the time, her husband had just started working third shift at the tannery, and she hadn’t experienced a tingling sensation like that, it seemed, in a very, very long time.
Harold had been a good enough man to not make the first move, and Sue had been lonely enough to not mind making it for him.
When they finally touched, late one Summer night in the deserted parking lot of Denny’s, long after everyone else had left for the night, they couldn’t stop themselves from touching more. Sue pulled him into her minivan and they made love there in the back seat, their breath fogging the windows.
It could’ve been a fling, a one-time-thing that went no further. She could’ve lived with that, accepted it for the passionate act that it was, and stayed faithful to her husband for the rest of her life; that one act wouldn’t have made her think of herself as a lying, cheating whore. But that’s not how it went.
For the next few months, they made love constantly – the kind of sucking, grasping, gripping love-making that never seems to end but rather pauses in between orgasms. It became a nightly affair; an hour after her husband went to work, Sue went to Harold.
As time went by, Harold became more and more adventurous in the bedroom, introducing handcuffs and blindfolds and other kinky objects (once, a turkey feather). He became especially fond of panties – specifically of the scent they gave off after Sue had been wearing them for a few nights. He would bury his nose in their fabric and breathe deeply, the bulge in his pants heaving along with his chest.
Sue hadn’t been exactly thrilled about the pantie fetish, but she played along. It was for this reason that she currently wasn’t wearing any as she drove to Mel’s Diner; her red thong was balled safely inside the glove compartment. Her plan was to dangle them underneath Harold’s nose as he drove them back to his apartment, as absurd as it sounded to her.
Inside the minivan, it was cold enough for her to see her breath, and a frost crept up and through her loose sweatpants, making her wish she’d worn them after all.
The howling wind seemed to whisper: lying, cheating whore.
She kept driving.
The world around her was blanketed in white. The roads had been paved well enough, but the wind-whipping cold that persisted throughout the day had left them iced over. She puttered along at a crawling twenty miles an hour.
Mel's was only a few mile's away from Sue's house. She had been worried about driving the entire distance to Harold's apartment in the city, so she’d asked him to meet her there and drive the rest of the way. He’d offered to pick her up at home, but she had swiftly – but politely – declined.
She saw the pickup truck idling in the parking lot of Mel’s before she pulled in. The lights were off and it loomed against the back wall of the diner like a shadow. Sue thought that it looked wrong being there, somehow, like it had disturbed the grace and stillness of the white surrounding it. Her mind flashed to her wedding dress, and that familiar, self-doubting voice chimed in once more from the depths of her consciousness:
Lying, cheating whore.
She pulled into the parking lot slowly. As she swung the car around to park, headlights illuminated the cab of the pickup truck. She saw two silhouettes through the windshield.
Lightning struck in her chest and her heart skipped a beat. For a brief, panicky moment, she thought that her husband was there sitting in the cab with Harold - that he had found out what she was doing or perhaps had known all along, and was finally springing his trap to catch her in the act.
Then the door of the pickup truck creaked open and the dome light flicked on in the cab. It wasn’t Harold or her husband, but some kid.
She looked up cautiously, telling herself over and over again to stay in the car, just stay in the damn car, under no circumstances are you to open or even unlock the doors.
He was wearing a light jean jacket and held a can of beer in one hand. Sue thought it was an absurd choice of clothing for such a cold night – almost as absurd as not wearing any underwear.
A second one hopped out of the truck and stumbled his way through the snow. He took a swig of his beer then threw the can across the parking lot. Sue saw it plunk into the snow soundlessly.
“You here for the party?” the kid in the jean-jacket asked. He knelt to press his face to the glass, trying to see who was inside.
Sue knew trouble when she saw it, and these kids were it. She honked her horn in a long, droning blast. Was her plan to deafen them to death? She didn't know.
The kid recoiled and landed in his ass in the snow.
The other one yelled over the sound of the horn: “Heeeyyy, where the partyyyy attttt?”
Sue slammed the gear shaft down and hit the gas to back out. At first, the minivan didn’t move an inch, just kicked snow out from her back tires. Then the thread finally took hold and she surged backwards, halfway across the party lot. She took her foot off the gas and tapped the brakes (just like her husband had taught her), then gunned it again, and the van fishtailed out onto the road.
“Who was that?” Garrett asked, getting up and brushing the snow off his pants.
“Who cares?” Fishhead replied. He was already heading back into the truck.
“I don’t think she was – “
Garrett was answered by the truck door slamming shut. Through the glass he could hear Fishhead’s muffled yelling: “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
Garrett got back in the truck and accepted a beer. He popped the tab, took a long drink, and put his pickup truck into gear.
It was happening – they were going to a real high school party. Fishhead had promised and promised and promised to get him to a party – to help get him laid, for God’s sake – and this time he was finally pulling through. And the girl in the car had looked so cute.
Garrett spun tires out of the parking lot, following the car’s taillights.
Sue Gauthier had resolved to go home, draw a hot bath, and put the whole thing behind her. Then she saw the headlights in her rearview mirror.
They were following her. Those kids. She wasn’t much older than a kid herself, but she knew trouble when she saw it, and trouble was jean jackets and long hair, was drinking canned beer in the parking lot of some closed diner in the dead of night.
Lying, cheating whore.
It was her husband’s voice whispering in her ear this time, and it sent shivers running down her spine.
With the headlights winking at her through the rear-view mirror, it took all her will to keep from pressing down on the gas harder. Wrecking her car would do no good – she couldn’t even imagine what those kids would do to her if she got stuck in a ditch. Certainly they weren’t the type that would help push her out and send her on her way.
She considered driving to the center of town – to the police station. But that would do no good, either. Statements would be taken, reports filed. Her husband would find out and demand an explanation.
Her husband wasn’t stupid, and neither was she. He didn’t know a thing – not for certain, at least – but the distance that had grown between them over the last few months had recently become palpable. It was in the way she found him curled up in bed in the mornings, his back turned to her, his body practically hanging off the edge of the mattress; it was the way he’d given up calling to check in on her every night when he got to work.
But maybe he’d been calling after all, and she just hadn’t been there to answer?
She crawled along the snow-covered roads at an even twenty miles per hour, that doubting voice gnawing at mind.
When she pulled into her neighborhood, she was calm enough – the headlights behind her were keeping pace, sure, but they were a safe distance behind. She would have plenty of time to open the garage door and close it behind her, unless the truck planned to ram into her backside –
Her minivan had been parked there before she left. Now, the tires and sides were coated in snow. That snow would surely melt overnight inside the garage, but she would have to soak up the water –
As she made her way into the cul-de-sac, she noticed only one set of tracks in the otherwise undisturbed layer of snow: her own. And that set of tracks led directly up her driveway to the garage. Unless the plows managed to make another run before 6AM, when her husband got home from work, he would know she left. And since tomorrow was Sunday morning…
Again that monotone voice spoke up from the deepest caverns of her psyche: lying, cheating whore. The headlights in her rear-view mirror seemed to wink in agreement.
Wracked by anxiety, she followed the tracks in the snow, so much like breadcrumbs leading to and from her own infidelity. She was a nervous wreck, but there wasn’t much she could do about it now. If she got caught, fine; if her affair had to come out for her husband to notice her, whatever. Maybe then he’d say more than two words to her over dinner. Maybe then he’d look at her the way he used to. Maybe then he’d touch her, hold her, make her feel –
She saw her husband’s car parked in the garage, illuminated by the single lightbulb that hung from the ceiling. She saw him leaning against the rear bumper, holding a beer in one hand and a snow shovel in the other.
He looked like he was waiting.
When Fishhead called earlier in the night to tell Garrett about the big plans he had for the last Saturday of Winter Break (“Sid McNally has three girls with him and Turtle knows about a house party out on Apple Tree lane.”), Garrett went along with the charade. He doubted there was any party – Sid was always full of shit and Turtle knew no more about parties than he did. They would probably end up doing what they did most nights: splitting a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon in his truck. But he didn’t have anything better to do, so he went and picked up his best friend.
Now, he followed the minivan with the cute girl inside giddily as she led them through a neighborhood. Gimme Three Steps blared from the radio and Fishhead sang along hoarsely:
“Gimme three steps, gimmer three steps, misterrrr!”
Garrett drummed his hands on the steering wheel along with the beat, only stopping long enough to take a sip from his beer.
It was happening – they were going to a real high school party.
He’d begun to think Fishhead was full of shit about Mel’s Diner being the meetup spot for parties – they’d spent countless weekends there discreetly drinking in the parking lot by themselves. He knew Fishhead wasn’t exactly popular among the upper-classmen. Both he and Garrett were on the outside of things; neither got invited out to much.
But now it had happened, it was happening, and Garrett was all excitement. Then the house and driveway came into view, and feeling of doubt crept up on him. It certainly didn’t look like anything was happening in this sleepy neighborhood.
“They probably met up somewhere else tonight,” Fishhead reassured, as much to himself as to Garrett.
Then Garrett saw the minivan skid to a park. The woman driving flew out the door and ran up the driveway, stumbling twice in the snow.
He pulled his truck up a few yards away. The headlights of his truck illuminated the scene: the woman grabbed a burly, flannel-clad man in the garage and pointed in their direction.
“Man, I don’t think this is the place,” Garrett said.
He and Fishhead watched as the man walked over. He held a beer in one hand and a snow shovel in the other.
“Man, this is not the place,” Garrett said.
Fishhead rolled down his window.
“Hey, man,” he shouted. “I think we got the wrong – “
The man ran the last ten yards and swung his snow shovel at the truck’s bumper. Glass crashed and one of the truck’s headlights winked out.
Both Garrett and Fishhead were momentarily transfixed by the sound, like a deer that hears the crack of the gun the split second before the bullet pierces its body.
The man advanced on Fishhead’s side of the truck. In one fluid motion, he lunged forward and punched his fist through the window and into Fishhead’s face, bursting his nose in an eruption of blood.
Lynyrd Skynyd still blared on the radio: “Ohhh wait a minute mister, I didn’t even – “
In full fight or flight mode – and Garrett chose flight nine times out of ten – he slammed his foot down on the gas. The truck lurched forward, bounced off the rear bumper of the minivan, then spun around in full circle in the snow-covered cul-de-sac.
“Get the fuck outta here,” Fishhead yelled, holding his nose with both hands, as if in prayer.
Garrett floored it out of the neighborhood.
When Sue Gauthier saw her husband swing the shovel against the front of the truck, shattering a headlight, she felt a monkey-wrench tighten a knot in her stomach; when he lurched towards the truck and punched through the window, she bent over and threw up on her shoes.
Now, she sat placidly in the passenger seat of the minivan while her husband pursued the pickup truck. She hadn’t wanted to come – hadn’t even thought that her husband would want to chase the kids down – but he had insisted. He’d even opened the door for her when she got in.
They followed the pickup truck for more than an hour, cutting left and right through different roads and neighborhoods. It wasn’t a high-speed chase – neither her husband nor the kid driving the truck were stupid enough to press their luck on the snow-covered roads – but it was tense all the same.
Sue stuttered her way through a half-baked back story while her husband drove: she was going to the store, that’s all, it was, you know, her time of the month and she didn’t have anything, so she was headed to the Shell to see if they were open but they weren’t so she pulled around in the parking lot and these kids started yelling at her, throwing beer cans, one of them asked if she wanted to party, and she came back home as quick as she could – thank God he was there, she was so scared, she didn’t know what she would’ve done and why they –
Her husband sat expressionless behind the wheel as she rambled on.
It wasn’t until they came to a stop that his expression changed.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Fishhead asked.
Garrett had just pulled the truck into the parking lot of Woodridge High. It idled as the headlights behind threw its shadow against the school.
“We’re gonna run out of gas before long,” Garrett said. “I’m sure if we just tell him – “
“Have you seen my fucking nose?”
Fishhead’s face looked as if it had been shot with a red paintball; blood was smeared all over his cheeks and lips.
“We’ve gotta do something – I can’t go home and nowhere’s open.”
They both got out of the truck.
When the driver’s side door of the minivan opened and dome light turned on, they both saw the woman in the passenger seat. Neither recognized her, although that didn’t surprise them – they were both already keen to the fact that she hadn't been leading them to a party.
Then they saw the man – her husband, presumably, big and burly and layered in thick flannel. His boots crunched in the snow as he walked towards them.
“Look, man,” Fishhead began, “we don’t know who you are, but this is one big mistake.” He walked forward with his hands held up as he spoke.
Garrett stayed safely by his door.
“Really, man, we were just looking for a party,” Fishhead continued.
“A party, huh?” the man said, bearing down on him.
Fishhead knew then that he had said the wrong thing.
“No, that’s not what I – “
The man’s fist connected with Fishhead’s nose. A spray of blood dappled the snow around him. Dazed, he began to fall down, but the man held him up by the collar of his jean jacket. He looked over to Garrett, who was still frozen in place by the truck.
“The fuck are you gonna do about it?” the man yelled, then delivered another vicious blow.
In a reaction of total self-preservation, Garrett opened up the door to his truck and hopped in. He heard his best friend screaming bloody-murder outside, then he saw the case of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the floor. Without thinking, he grabbed a can and stepped back outside.
The man had let go of Fishhead and was now kicking him in the stomach. Fishhead’s body seemed to curl around the steel-toed boot.
“Hey asshole!” Garrett yelled.
The man looked up.
Garrett threw the beer can as hard as he could. Years later, he would still remember seeing it spin in perfect rotations, cutting through the air towards its target.
It hit the man directly on the forehead, opening a gash. The man took a step forward, a step back, then fall face-first into the snow like a felled tree.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” Garrett yelled.
Fishhead scrambled to his feet and towards the truck, slipping twice in the process and crawling on his hands and knees across the parking lot. He hopped in the truck and he and Garrett took off.
They were a few miles down the road by the time caught their breath. Garretts knuckles were white, his hands gripping the steering as if it were a life vest, and Fishhead’s nose was completely crooked, still dripping blood.
As they drifted to the bottom of a hill, they stopped briefly at a stop sign. Joe Walsh’s Rocky Mountain Way came on the radio. Fishhead slapped Garrett’s chest and held his hand there.
In the cab of the truck, neither of them breathed.
The two best friends locked eyes for a moment, digesting what had just happened to them.
Fishhead broke the silence.
“Goddamn kid,” he panted.
Garrett looked at him.
“You just hit ‘em with the ole Jim Palmer fastball!” Fishhead yelled, and he shook his best friend roughly by the shoulders.
They both laughed uproariously, then went back to Mel’s Diner to polish off the case of beer.
“I told you they were fucking nuts,” Sue was saying as she drove the minivan back home. She had rolled her husband over in the snow and had gotten him alert enough to help him into the car.
“I don’t know who the fuck they were,” she continued.
Her husband sat in a daze in the passenger seat. Blood dripped from the gash in his forehead and he had to frequently rub it away from his eyes.
“Who are you fucking...” he slurred, his head lolling on his neck.
Sue’s heart skipped a beat. “What are you – “ she began.
“A bunch of kids, goddamnit. High school kids, for Christ’s sake.”
Sue couldn’t believe her ears. “You think – “
“Running around on me with a bunch of damn kids!” her husband roared.
Sue slammed the brakes and the minivan slid to a halt against a snowbank. She looked at her husband coldly.
“Listen to – “ she began.
“I knew you were running around on – “
“Listen to me!” she roared. Surprisingly, her husband did.
“I don’t who those kids were, okay? You think I would be cheating on you with a bunch of damn kids not even out of high school?”
Her husband looked away. Sue was surprised at how rough he looked, both inside and out.
“You’re hurt, that’s all,” she soothed. “You’re not thinking clearly right now. I told you they were following me, I told you they scared me, I told you – “
“Alright, alright,” her husband said. He waved her words away in annoyance, as if they were giving him a headache. They probably were.
Sue let out an inward sigh of relief. She doubted her husband believed everything – the reason why she had been out on the roads in the first place would need some fine tuning – but she hadn’t been caught in an outright lie. Everything was going to be fine. Things might not get much better with this recent incident, but they wouldn’t get much worse, either.
She stroked her husband’s arm gently.
“I think I’ve got some aspirin in the – “
Her words caught in her throat.
Her husband opened the glove compartment.
That’s when he saw the red panties.