Vampire Cabbie - Chapter 12


Take Me Out To The Ballgame

You certainly may scoff at this quite laughable notion of Count Farkus attending a baseball contest, but much to my surprise, I found it quite the intriguing experience. However, not to jump too far ahead, for the issue of Nicole's presence presented quite the awkward scenario.

Over the past month, we exchanged the rare glance, a few bits of conversational pleasantries, but our mutual discomfort was quite obvious. Doubtless, my presence at the baseball game would make her uneasy.

Canceling this engagement might seem suspicious. I did want to attend the contest. And yes, you are correct, I did want to see Nicole, talk to her, and bathe in her scent.

Providence. Shortly after the invitation, misgivings piling upon misgivings, I spotted Nicole at the petrol pump. My naturally surreptitious approach startled her. She turned toward me with a start.

"Please," I said, holding a hand up, "beg my pardon."

"Christ," she said in a whisper, "it's almost like you materialized out of the darkness."

Silence was my answer. "I hope your shift was profitable."

Nicole leaned against the hood of her cab. "Yeah. It was. What do you want?"

I nodded at her directness. "Of course, after nary a word the past month, it would seem odd for me to approach you merely to make, as you Americans say, small-talk."

"Damn right." She crossed her arms in front of her chest. The pump clicked off loudly. Nicole reached for the nozzle to top off her gas tank.

"It is nothing, really." Both hands held up now, palms facing her, no steps taken closer. "Kern has invited me to attend that baseball contest next week - "

Loud laughter interrupted my explanation. "Is that what this is about?" Her arms dropped to her sides as she continued to laugh. "Hell, I thought this was about something serious."

"Considering the events of a month ago, it seemed my presence might disturb you. If so, please let me know, and I will tell Kern I have to decline his kind invitation."

Nicole laughed again. "Somehow, I'm having a hard time picturing you at a baseball game."

"As do I."

Nicole laughed so hard she was nearly doubled over. "This isn't happening." She covered her face with her hands until her laughter subsided, then she stared at me with a look that almost stripped me naked. "This whole thing is unbelievable. You kill somebody right in front of me, then a month later you ask if it would bother me if you went to a baseball game with me, Kern and Henry."

"I never had any intention of exposing you to any of that."

"No you didn't," she replied, her voice forgiving. "No, it's really very kind of you to ask, very considerate. Christ, that's a lot more consideration than I got from my last five boyfriends. Combined! Al, you're a real gentleman. A gentleman who happens to drink human blood and kill people every once in awhile."

"I only kill when all other options have been exhausted." My voice was barely audible.

Nicole nodded. "Can't say I blame you much for whacking Frank. After what he did to that kid, I probably would've done the same. Just a few questions."

"You may proceed."

"What'd you do with Frank's body?"

"He is buried in a deep grave, ten miles outside of town. No one will ever find him."

"Of course. Why'd you leave the boy's body where it could be found?"

"Regardless of how horrible his fate, the boy's family deserved to know their boy was dead. The futile hope held by these parents of missing children sickens me. If their child is dead, they deserve to know."

She nodded. "Fair enough. Of course, you realize that whoever killed that woman a week after they found the boy probably did it because he figured the cops would pin it on whoever killed the boy."

My shoulders shrugged as I turned away from the accusation. My voice sounded too dry when I replied, "Regrettable, but there is only so much hand-wringing I can do and still manage to survive in this world."

"Nice philosophy." Her voice sounded accusing, then her tone shifted. "Those two women, you didn't kill them, did you?"

"No."

"You don't kill when you feed."

I laughed lightly. "That isHollywood . No, I do not kill when I feed because it is not necessary. What amounts to little more than a trickle satisfies me. And my bite does not produce vampirism. That too is also Hollywood."

Our mutual silence hung awkwardly in the air. "Okay," she said finally, clapping her hands together, hanging the nozzle and replacing the gas cap. "It's not great baseball, but it's right here inour town. Look forward to seeing you."

Astonishment. "I have only just heard my first baseball game tonight. I know nothing of this game's nuances."

"That's okay." She smiled and slapped my shoulder. "I'll be glad to tell you all about it."

****

Monday came, and with excitement, I braved the last rays of sun to meet Nicole and the others at the Crystal Corner Bar, onMadison 's so-called fashionable near-east side. Upon plunging into dark depths of the saloon, I was grateful to remove my sunglasses, fighting against the overstimulated aural assault of the jukebox blaring that infernal rock and roll, punctuated by the crack of pool balls, the click-clatter of pinball machines, the twack of darts striking their targets, the numerous conversations blending into one, the countless heartbeats - even though the bar was not crowded, the scent of sweat, skin, perfume and all those distilled and fermented beverages made my nose crinkle.

Yet the gentle florescent light, warmed by the unnatural glow of ionized inert gases, proved a comfort, making all in the saloon appear the pallor of chalk - excellent camouflage.

The tall, slender fellow with the cowboy hat smiled at me from behind the long, oval bar, his well-muscled arms crossed in front of his chest as he surveyed the room, seeming happy that all was orderly.

Kern stood out from the back of the bar, his height and long, thinning hair making him quite distinctive. My trainer quickly spied me and waved vigorously. Nicole and Henry flanked him, both swathed in black leather skins. Underneath her jacket, Nicole wore a thick sweater, a long scarf hanging loosely around her neck.

"A couple four-ways splits at the air, a couple five-bangers at the Badger Bus," Kern said as I approached. Apparently, they were, as the Americans say, talking shop. Have they nothing else to discuss? "Christ, what a bounty," he said. "Yeah, like I was saying, I remember one time getting a six-way out of the Badger."

"A six-way?" Nicole wondered. "Isn't that illegal? The most we can take is five, or four, if the cab's got front bucket seats, right?"

"Capitol Cab'll load up seven or eight," Henry said.

"I didn't mean to take that many." Kern downed the rest of his bottle of beer, the bright red and blue label identifying the brand as Point. "They were swarming at me, likeNight of the Living Dead . Anyway, I dropped off one, then another, then looked in the back, saw four people crammed back there and said, 'Jesus, where did you come from?'"

The trio laughed, then turned and saw me standing at their side. "Hey, Count," Kern said. "Glad to see you could make it."

Nicole smiled warmly and said hello. Henry grunted as he took a long sip of his cocktail. I turned and saw the bartender with the cowboy hat staring at us, both hands pressed against the black plastic railing circling the entire inside edge of the bar. The stance made his biceps flex into hard, round clumps of muscle.

"Hey, Todd," Kern said, turning to the bartender, "this is the Count."

"A Bloody Mary for you tonight, Count?" Todd smiled graciously.

"Thank you, no," I replied, laughing lightly, "but Kern, I do believe I owe you a drink, do I not?"

"That's right, that four-way I set you up with." Kern lifted the empty bottle to his lips and sucked at the remaining foam residue at the bottom. "Can't say no to a free beer. Thanks Count. Another Point, Todd."

Todd reached into the cooler behind him, grabbed a bottle of Point by the neck, and in one fluid motion, flipped the bottle, caught it at the bottom, drew a bottle opener from his belt and popped the cap. He handed the beer to Kern and quickly replaced the opener as a movement caught his attention. In what seemed a continuation of the previous motion, the bartender pulled a cigarette lighter from the pocket of his black denim trousers, loudly flipped open the cover, struck the flint and lit the cigarette that Henry had just drawn from a pack that sat on the bar.

"That's one-fifty, Count," Todd said.

"Keep the change," I said, handing him three dollars. Such panache, such savoir fairedeserves ample reward.

"Does anyone else desire refreshment?" Todd asked.

Nicole looked down at her half-full glass of beer and shook her head. Henry downed what remained of his drink, ice clinking against his teeth. He handed the wide-mouthed, cut-glass tumbler to the bartender. "Stoli and cranberry," he said.

"A man of impeccable taste." Todd grabbed the glass and took his leave to pour a fresh drink.

"Yeah, Count," Kern said, "we were just talking about the goodies from the Cab Gods out there last night."

"Ah, the end of Spring Break," I replied. "All those college students returning from their vacations, tanned and refreshed."

"It was so nice and quiet while they were gone," Nicole said.

"But their absence was a detriment to business," I replied. "I do not know how I managed to survive the boredom last week. The tedium was so excruciating that even the great joy of the printed word could not save me."

"You need something more interesting to read, something you can sink your teeth into," Nicole replied, taking a small sip of her beer. "Like Seutonius, maybe."

"I concur completely," I replied blandly, ignoring her clumsy double entendre.

"Too damn busy to read," Henry said, taking a large gulp of the cocktail Todd had just handed him. "Hell, whoever killed those women, we outta give the fucker a goddamned medal."

"Especially with the students back," Kern said. "Hell, anybody can make money with it that busy, even the Count here."

"Thanks to the expert training I received," I said.

"And don't you forget it," Kern said, taking a long drink from his beer. In a few gulps, the bottle was nearly empty.

"You want another beer, do you not?" I said.

"Beggar!" Nicole mocked.

"The successful cab driver has no shame," Kern replied. "You can call this job, 'anything for a dollar.' The time I picked up this little old lady at Sentry Hilldale and she says, 'Would you like to earn an extra dollar?' I said, 'Sure. What do I have to do?'"

"Whatdid you have to do?" Henry asked.

"And was it as good for you as it was for her?" Nicole added.

Kern laughed heartily, shaking his head and waving the bottle of beer at Todd to get his attention. I put a couple dollars on the bar and shoved them toward Kern.

"What the hell," Kern said. "Got about another fifteen minutes before we head to the ballpark. So, Count, how'd you happen to hear Uke's home run call? You must've been pretty bored to cruise the AM dial."

"Yes. And I was so bored driving Friday and Saturday night that I listened to the games played on those nights as well. That Ueckeris a very funny fellow. During one game, he and the other announcer had a rather earnest conversation about the most ideal ways to toast bread."

Henry nodded. "I remember one time hearing Bob talk about winning a cow-milking contest when he played in the minor leagues. He said the cow wouldn't leave him alone after the contest, that she followed him around for days and that she was a pretty good date."

Nicole laughed, then coughed loudly, nearly spitting out the sip of beer she had just taken. She calmed and took another sip. "Kern," she asked, "do I have time for another beer?"

"Sure," he replied. "I haven't heard my songs on the jukebox yet."

Apparently, Todd overheard. "Kern, if you play 'Mountain Jam' again, I'm rejecting it. I'll give you a drink chip, but I don't wanna hear that song anymore tonight."

"Better give me my chip now," Kern replied.

Todd shot Kern a mildly angry look and tossed a red disk onto the bar. When it stopped bouncing, I picked it up and studied it. The chip bore the name of the bar on one side and on the other said, "good for one free large drink."

"That's pretty underhanded," Nicole said in a hushed whisper. "You didn't have time to listen to that song before the game anyway."

"A card laid is a card played," Kern said, shoving the chip into his pocket. "You want I should give back a free drink chip?"

"You're such a mercenary bastard," Henry said, emptying his drink and putting it down on the bar where it was easily visible to Todd. The bartender promptly picked up the glass and refilled it.

"Hey, that's what makes me such a good cab driver."

It was not until after seven when the three cab drivers managed to finish their drinks at the same time, and we were able to commence our journey to the ballpark. But who would drive? Henry volunteered, but was quickly vetoed.

"You're way too fucked up to drive," Kern protested.

"I will gladly drive," I said. "We can all fit in myToyota . The Muskies play at Warner Park, right? At Sherman and Northport?"

"Right, Count," Kern said, "and thanks. Now, who's willing to volunteer to explain the action to our good friend here who barely knows baseball from cricket?"

"I'll do it," Nicole said enthusiastically. "You can sit next to me and ask me any questions you want. Before the game's over, you'll know everything there is to know about baseball." She patted me gently on the shoulder, her hand lingering for just a moment.

Well, at least I was going to find out what a Muskie was.

****

It is rather queer how Americans swear allegiance to these professional sporting franchises, more queer still how so many of the teams have heroic names: The New York Yankees, commemorating that great mercantile tradition that helped build their country; the Dallas Cowboys, commemorating the so-called rugged individualism of the Wild West; and just a general sense of warlike fierceness embodied by Giants, Warriors, Falcons, Hawks and Raiders. However, it does seem these Americans, in their occasional confusion, seem to also honor malapropisms, what with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz.

ThisMadison baseball team must not have been very good, having taken their name from a fish. How silly of me not to have

realized that this was the diminutive term for the muskellunge, that large, muscular, rather truculent member of the pike family, a great prize for sport anglers, sometimes known to attack ducks and other waterfowl with their sharp teeth, and even, on occasion, humans.

Signs in the parking lot at Warner Park, at the ticket booth and all around the entrance read, "Go Fish." At the main gate, someone wearing a costume of bright green nylon with glowing white teeth, crimson eyes and a spiny cobalt dorsal fin greeted fans, shaking hands and accepting warm pats on the back. The giant muskie posed for photographs with children who squealed with delight, and, in general, was on the receiving end of a great deal of genuinely warm adoration.

It was oddly gratifying to discover that these good Christians were indeed pagans. They worship fish! And why not? Lakes cover this glacier-scoured state ofWisconsin . Fish, the bounty of these sparkling bodies of water, provides sustenance for these good Christians, who, in tribute, make a Friday night tradition of attending fish-eating orgies and make their pilgrimage to Warner Park to pay homage to their Madison Muskies.

Ritual seemed a large aspect of what people do at the ballpark - ballpark being an apt term. Wembley Stadium is indeed a stadium, whereas this is a park, with a short, chain link fence ringing the field, except for the outfield, which was circumscribed by a ten-foot wall of plywood bearing various advertisements for assorted goods and services, ranging from telephones to tobacco, automobiles to automatic garage door openers. Where Wembley has actual seats, this park merely offered long steel benches. However, Warner Park more than compensated for its lack of majesty with the way it allows one to commune with nature; the grass was neatly groomed and quite lovely, and from the elevated vantage point of the bleachers, there was a nice view of a modest forest, beyond which twinkled Lake Mendota, the last rays of sun sparkling off the lake's surface.

Shortly after we had selected our seats, a chipper voice boomed from the public address system, ordering us to stand for the national anthem. Little surprise that sports and patriotism should go hand in hand; few sports are not analogs of war, and a powerful nation must always have a populace ready, willing and able to go to war, regardless of the relative stupidity of said war.

Following everyone's example, I stood as the announcer screeched the song, joined by the several hundred fans, each in their own key. A loud cheer followed the song's completion, surpassed only by the great expression of joy in our section when a barrel-chested young man appeared, hefting a large plastic cooler.

"Beer man!" Kern shouted. The vender nodded in acknowledgment of Kern's hail and quickly climbed to where we sat.

"I'll have one," Nicole said.

"Me too," said Henry.

Kern tapped me on the shoulder, pointing at the beer vender. I shook my head. "Our designated driver," he said, smiling and patting me gently on the back. Nicole handed me a dollar, which I passed to Kern who passed it to Henry along with a dollar of his own. The beer man removed three cans of beer from the cooler, opened them and poured the contents into plastic cups. Quickly, my fellow drivers had their ballpark-beers, presumably satisfying yet another ballpark ritual.

"Hey, there'sLeon ," Henry said, pointing a few rows down toward a swarthy fellow with long, unkempt black hair, a thick mustache and a rather sharply hooked nose. He wore a Muskies cap, which bore the image of a muskellunge wearing a baseball cap and holding a baseball bat with one of its fins.

"Who, may I ask, isLeon ?" I inquired.

"He's sort of an unofficial cheerleader for the Muskies," Nicole replied. "He's pretty well known. He works for the state as a computer programmer, but about ten years ago, he was vice president of theUniversityofWisconsin Student Association ."

"He looks a bit old to have been a student, even ten years ago," I commented. Indeed, the fellow looked over forty years of age.

"I think he used to take just one class," Nicole answered, "or maybe he was a grad student. I'm not sure. Anyway, he and this guy, Jim Mallon, they were tired of the same-old-same-old stupid shit with student government, so they formed their own party - the Pale and Shovel Party - and got voted into office. They ran the student association for two years."

I momentarily played the devil's advocate. "Is there not an old adage that people get the kind of government they deserve?"

Nicole did not respond, merely continuing her historical digest. "Leonused to wear a clown suit to senate meetings." She laughed loudly. "They did some pretty wacko stuff. Like covering Bascom Hill with pink flamingos. They commissioned someone to build a paper mache bust of Lady Liberty right on the ice onLakeMendota ."

Action on the field drew my attention to where another ritual seemed to be taking place - the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch. This night's honoree was a corpulent commercial developer, more than likely responsible for helping createMadison 's burgeoning state of urban sprawl.

After the fellow shook hands with anyone within arm's reach, the umpire handed him the ball. His throw bounced ten feet in front of the plate and barely managed to roll to the catcher. The fans applauded wildly.

The Muskie players took their positions throughout the field, and the crowd hushed. The umpire pointed at the opposing batter, then yelled from deep within his gut, "Play ball!"

Leonrose from his seat, a grin suddenly appearing, giving him an almost cartoon-like animation. "Let's Go Fish! Let's Go Fish!" he shouted, clapping his hands together, not in the usual horizontal manner, but vertically, with his arms fully extended.

Immediately, the whole crowd was chanting, "Let's Go Fish. Let's Go Fish," and clapping in that queer manner.

"What in the name of heaven are they doing?" I asked Nicole, pointing at the crowd. Henry and Kern were doing it too.

"It's the fish clap," she replied.

"Fish clap?" There must be too much mercury in the fish these people consume.

"Yeah, the fish clap." Nicole started doing it too. "Let's Go Fish!"

I watched her do the fish clap, then it dawned on me: those clapping hands were intended to emulate the snapping maw of a vicious muskie.

If baseball is consideredAmerica 's pastime,America is indeed a strange place.

Scrutinizing the fans, I missed the first pitch, merely hearing the loud "pat" as the ball struck the catcher's glove and the deep, guttural, "Hu-huh!" of the umpire. The fans cheered louder.

"What happened?"

"Strike one," Nicole said. My expression must have betrayed confusion. "Lesson one, right now. The pitcher throws the ball, and the batter tries to hit it. A pitched ball may be a ball or a strike, depending on whether or not the pitcher throws it in the strike zone, which is in line with home plate, above the knees and below the shoulders. If the batter doesn't swing at three pitches thrown in the strike zone, he's out, what's called a 'strike-out'. If the pitcher throws four pitches out of the strike zone, the batter is awarded first base. That's a 'walk' or a 'base on balls'."

I nodded and turned back toward the action - or the inaction; the pitcher had not yet thrown another pitch. He bent over and stared toward the batter, shaking his head, shaking his head, shaking his head, before nodding, straightening and throwing. "Pop." "Hu-huh!"

"Strike two?" I asked.

"Very good, Al," Nicole said.

"See," Kern chimed in, "I said he was a fast learner."

"The object of the contest is to actually hit the ball, is it not?"

"Yeah," Nicole answered. "Put it in play, meaning between the two lines that run all the way from home plate to the outfield. If the batter swings at a pitch, strike or ball, and misses, it's a strike. If he hits the ball, but not within the white lines, it's a foul ball, which counts as a strike."

The pitcher threw, and the batter swung, barely tipping the ball, sending it flying against the fence behind him. "Like that?" I said.

"And watch out for flying baseballs," Henry added. "We're pretty close to the action. A line drive might come screaming in here, so heads up."

The pitcher leaned forward. Shook his head once, then again.

"Why does the pitcher keep shaking his head like that?"

"Pitchers are arms with no brains," Nicole said. "The catcher is signaling to the pitcher what kind of pitch to throw. If the pitcher shakes his head, he doesn't like the call. When he nods his head, that means he's in agreement with the catcher, but I'll tell you, most of the time, it's the catcher who decides what to throw and where to throw it."

The pitcher finally nodded.

"See how the catcher is sitting toward the outside of the plate?" Nicole said. "He's called for a pitch away from the hitter as opposed to inside."

"Heater," Kern said.

"Naw," Henry countered. "Bender."

The batter swung and missed. A loud roar rose from the crowd.

"Heeeeeeee struck him out!" Henry shouted in such a manner as to tear away the first two layers of skin from the inside of his throat.

Head bowed, the batter shuffled away from the plate, the crowd chanting, "Left, right, left, right, left, right," until he reached his team's shelter. Then, "Step, step, step," and finally, "Siddown, ya bum!"

More rituals. "May I presume they do this every time an opposing batter strikes out?"

"Sure," Nicole said, "it's one of the most fun things about going to a Muskies game.Madison is known throughout the Midwest League for this."

Leonsat after leading the cheer, punching left, right, left, right fists in the air. The fans sitting directly adjacent all took turns shaking his hand, all just wanting to touch him as if he was Jesus Christ, or rather Jesus Christ wearing a propeller beanie.

I turned to Henry and Kern. "What are heaters and benders?"

"Different types of pitches," Kern said. Henry was too busy drinking his beer to reply.

Nicole touched me lightly on the shoulder as the next batter stepped into the batter's box. "A heater is a fastball. A bender is a type of a breaking ball - a slider. A hook is a curve. There's also knuckleballs, split-finger fastballs, sinkers and palm balls."

"Don't forget spit balls," Henry said, stifling a burp under his breath.

"They're illegal," Kern said.

"Pitchers spit on the baseball?" I asked, wondering where the vulgarity of these Americans does indeed end.

"They're not supposed to," Nicole said, "but some guys not long ago made a living at it."

"Gaylord Perry," Kern added.

"But what possible effect might spitting on a baseball have?"

"A lot," Nicole said. "Maybe it's spit, maybe it's Vaseline, maybe it's God knows what. You get something embedded in the seams of the ball and it affects the air resistance. The ball'll do funny things, making it much harder to hit."

"Ah ha," I said, feeling a sudden burst of realization. "Friction is constantly at work here. Pitchers can achieve certain effects depending on how the ball spins. Correct?"

"Or depending on how it doesn't spin," Kern added. "A knuckleball ain't supposed to spin. That's what makes it break one way, then the other."

"Surface, you idiot," Henry snorted. "Don't you know dick about physics? If a knuckleball doesn't spin at all, it won't break. It'll just be a sitting duck. Ideally, a knuckleball will spin exactly one rotation between the pitcher's mound and the plate. Because the rotation's so slow, it'll break one way,then break back the other way."

A loud crack rang through the night, and the crowd groaned loudly. The batter had just gotten a hit and was now standing on first base. The pitcher stood straight this time, shook his head, glanced toward first base, glanced back toward the plate, shook his head again, then turned and threw to first base.

"He's trying to hold the runner," Nicole said, "to keep him from stealing second." She anticipated my next question. "Any time someone gets on base, they can attempt to reach the next base without the aid of a batted ball. The runner'll take off when the pitcher throws to the plate. If he makes it to the next base before getting tagged by whoever takes the catcher's throw, he's safe. That's what it means to steal a base."

Shake, glance, throw. Shake, glance, throw. A few minutes passed, and all that had happened was that the pitcher had still not agreed with the catcher on a pitch and had thrown to first base several times.

"Amazing that you Americans think soccer so boring." I did not intend to be overly provocative, but this game of throw and catch grew quickly tedious. At least in soccer, the ball always moves. Here, these ruffians seemed to be spending most of their time scratching their privates. "There seems to be nothing happening."

"And there never seems to be anything happening in a Jane Austen novel," Nicole said, "unless you read between the lines."

"I believe I have just been victimized by a vicious punster," I said, contemplating the white lines that formed the border of the playing area. "As you Americans say, I will bite. Tell me what it is I am missing. I am all ears."

"There's a lot of options here," Nicole began. "The guy on first is fast. He's very fast. Jenkins is - "

"Jenkins!" I exclaimed. "Where?"

"No," Kern said, "who'son first."

In a moment, my composure returned. No, my former investment manager was not playing minor league baseball.

"This guy, Jenkins, is real fast," Nicole continued, unfazed by the interruptions. "With his speed, he's a big threat to steal or take an extra base on a hit. So, the pitcher tries to keep him close by throwing to first repeatedly."

Nicole explained how a speedy base runner provides greater options for the batting team in its effort to move him closer to the eventual goal. She spoke of "bunts" and "steals" and something called "the hit-and-run." Somehow, it sounded dangerous, as well as a problem for the opposing team.

"Now, the defense is fully aware of all of this," Nicole continued. "They might call for a pitch-out. That's when the pitcher throws intentionally out of the strike zone where the batter can't hit it. The catcher can get to it and make a good, strong throw to second base, hopefully if the runner is running."

"Ah," I said, fighting a losing battle against confusion. "But the offense is aware of this preoccupation and may not let the runner run for fear of an oncoming pitch-out. Correct?"

"Yeah," Nicole replied,

"but they also know the defense knows that the offense is well aware of the defense's awareness."

"I am certain that goes without saying."

"Sometimes, what can happen," Kern added, "is that a pitch-out gets called, but the runner isn't going. So, figuring they're not going to call two pitch-outs in a row, they'll send the runner on the very next pitch."

"But the defense is thinking this way as well," I offered, "so they order another pitch-out."

"But," Nicole added, "the offense might be one step ahead of the defense and not give the runner the green light, and suddenly the batter is ahead in the count two balls and no strikes."

"Then, it gets real complicated," Kern said.

"You guys are making me fucking dizzy," Henry snorted. "Beer man!"

The pitcher finally threw toward the plate, but there was no pitch-out. Apparently, the hit-and-run had been summoned forth, but it proved disastrous as the batter hit a line drive right at the second baseman who threw back to first base to record an out against the runner. After a lengthy explanation, Nicole said this was a double play.

Perhaps, it might be time to reread the works of Miss Austen.

After an uneventful first inning, where more was happening than would appear to the uninitiated, the Muskies drew first blood, scoring on a home run hit high into the darkeningMadison sky.

"Must've hurt his hands," Kern said, pulling his leather closer to his body. He gripped the material of my shirt between his thumb and forefinger. "Aren't you cold?"

Unlike my companions who were well bundled or the other fans who wrapped themselves in blankets as the night's cold settled in, I wore merely a button-down shirt under my leather jacket. It had been warm that afternoon, and I had no need to put on heavier clothing. Now, my attire appeared suspicious.

"I am quite comfortable," I replied. "I am well accustomed to the cold."

The Muskies added another couple of runs, but saw their undaunted opponent match their tally and exceed it as the game reached the halfway point, the milestone marked by a team of fit young men and women who, amidst cheers, sprinted onto the infield and smoothed the earth with thick, weighted canvas sheets which they dragged behind them. Once their task was completed, the groomers turned toward the bleachers and bowed before running off the field.

More ritual: Before resuming play, the voice from above announced it was time for something called "the bat race".

"Check this out," Nicole said laughing.

Two portly men stood near the home team's shelter, each holding a bat upright against the grass. When the signal was given, the men ran in tight, rapid circles around the bats they still held.

"Kern, didn't you do this once?" Nicole asked.

"I got hosed," Kern replied. "I played it smart, going around the bat slow enough not to get too dizzy, and there I was, clear-headed, running for the gold, but they made me go back and run one more circle. I made ten circles, I know I did, but they said it was only nine, the fuckers."

"We'll put it on your fucking headstone," Henry said. "'It was ten circles, not nine. I got hosed.'"

One gentleman completed his ten circles, dropped the bat and was ready to run ahead to the goal to win the contest. He took one step, stumbled and fell to the turf.Carpe diem ! The other man speeded up, dropped the bat and prepared to rush forward as though to grab the Holy Grail. He stumbled, fought hard to steady himself, then wobbled sideways and fell into the shelter. The first man finally rose and trotted gingerly to the finish line to win his prize.

The hundreds of fans laughed loudly.Leon rose and gestured broadly with his arms, beckoning the fans to give this valiant duo a standing ovation. Before the game resumed, the announcer offered a few veiled, but choice words about safety. "Parents, watch your children. Everyone, use the buddy system. And do not go into the parking lot by yourself after the game."

Only a couple of families had brought their offspring, most likely because the children had to get up for school the next day. The youths had been climbing all over the steel bleachers until the announcement. Parents then pulled their children close.

"Christ," Henry said, rising, "I'm hungry."

"Brat run?" Kern asked.

"Yeah, you guys want anything?"

Nicole reached across me to hand Henry a five-dollar note, her breasts gently brushing against my arm. "Can you get me a brat with sauerkraut and mustard?"

"Ditto for me," Kern added, "but make it too. And I want ketchup also."

Henry took the bills and made a sour face. "Ketchup? Ketchup? What kind of maniac puts ketchup on a brat?"

Kern sneered at his fellow driver. "Bud Selig puts ketchup on his hot dogs. If it's good enough for the owner of the Brewers, it's good enough for me."

Henry snorted loudly and left to run his errand without another word. The next half inning had expired before he returned with his fleshy bounty and a fresh cup of beer.

Kern took a bite of his bratwurst and smiled broadly. "Nothing like a brat at the ballpark." He shoved the sausage in my face. "Want a bite, Count? It's real good."

I said no thank you, suddenly feeling nauseous. My well-practiced mental discipline had allowed me to filter out the sensory overload of this tightly packed mass of humanity, but suddenly it all came crashing inward. The sickening stench of charred animal flesh clashed violently with the sweet scent of sweat and living skin. And my eardrums seemed on the verge of rupturing from the suddenly intolerable symphony of clapping thunder as the thump, thump, thumping of several hundred hearts, loudly pumping sweet nectar through all those bodies, all beat as one.

I caught Nicole looking at me. "You look flushed," she whispered.

I nodded and excused myself, departing to get some air. Loitering in the spacious area behind the bleachers, between a concession stand and the water closets, I listened to my own labored breathing in an effort to regain my composure.

Soon, my breathing slowed, allowing me to relax, then the thumping echoed inside my skull once again, not the hammering of all those singing hearts, but instead the distinct beating of two hearts from within the men's water closet a mere few feet away.

I stepped inside and stood in front of a urinal, two urinals away from a man who was fortunately too oblivious to notice what I was not doing.

"Hey, Sven," the man said over his shoulder, zipping his trousers and stepping away from the urinal. "You pinch off that loaf yet?"

The man answered with the rapid staccato of violently passed gas. "In a fuckin' minute," he replied.

"I'm leaving," the first man said. "You better hurry up if you want a buddy. You heard the man. Don't go anywhere alone."

The fellow inside the stall laughed loudly between more passed gas. "Whatever. Catch you back out there."

The other man laughed then departed. More loud passed gas, silence, then the fellow inside the stall groaned loudly. A large, thick plop followed, as if an exceedingly heavy object had just fallen into the toilet bowl.

Just the two of us. No other heartbeats nearby.

Suddenly, the fellow was looking up from his seat, trousers down at his ankles. Before he knew what was happening, he knew not what was happening to him, knew nothing at all, as if he had fallen into a waking dream, not knowing, not even wondering what was making that queer sucking sound.

"Feeling better?" Nicole asked when I had returned to my seat.

"Yes. I just needed some air."

"Well, you look better." She smiled and moved a bit closer to me, her breath hot against my face. She whispered in my ear. "Your cheeks look nice and rosy, and I'll bet the farm it's not from this brisk early spring weather."

I simply nodded, savoring the warmth of her body, finding her ear with my mouth, the soft scent of her long hair washing into my nostrils. "A kind fellow I met in the lavatory," I whispered. "Kind and charitable. With no pain, no fear and no knowledge. And not even a pint short."

Nicole snuggled closer, not saying a single word.

More ritual: By the seventh inning, the visiting team had opened their lead to four scores, but the announcer was undaunted as he enthusiastically announced that it was time for "the seventh inning stretch."

The fans rose in unison and stretched.Leon turned and shouted, "Sing!" as he exhorted the crowd, waving his arms to and fro, just as a drunken conductor might. A recorded voice sang over the loudspeaker, and the crowd happily joined in: "Take me out to the ball game / Take me out with the crowd / Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack / I don't care if I never come back / So, it's root, root, root for the Muskies / If they don't win it's a shame / 'Cuz it's one, two, three strikes yer out / At the old ball game."

The fans applauded wildly after shouting and punching fists into the air one, two, three, then remained standing and sang another song, one I knew - "Roll Out The Barrel." Perhaps they sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at every park in the country, but "Roll Out The Barrel" had to be peculiar toWisconsin . And why not? All these Germans, all that beer and bratwurst. The only thing missing was a polka band, and here they were, nearly everyone paired up, dancing the polka right in the stands.

When the Muskies' last chance arrived in the bottom of the ninth, they had cut the four run deficit in half and had put runners at every base, but after a strike-out and a short fly ball caught within the infield, they were truly down to their last chance.

The situation seemed bleak, but these good Christian pagans held steadfast to their faith in their Muskies. TakingLeon 's example, everyone rose to their feet and chanted in lockstep rhythm, "Let's go fish! Let's go fish!" Hundreds of hands clapped together, emulating the vicious muskie maw, calling forth the spirit of their team's patron totem.

"C'mon," Kern said. "Baby needs a new pair of shoes. Baby needs a new pair of shoes!"

"Little bingo here," Nicole said. "Little bingo."

I turned toward my instructor. "Bingo? What is that?"

She looked at me blankly. Suddenly, a loud crack rang out, followed by a gasp throughout the crowd. My head turned toward the sound, seeing several fans duck as the hard line drive flew at us, directly at Nicole's head.

At the last moment, I reached out and grabbed the ball in mid-flight, the impact sharp and ringing, but the ball's momentum halted, the small spheroid held safely within my tightly closed fingers. I casually handed the ball to Nicole.

"Thanks," she said, a high degree of astonishment in her voice. "Doesn't your hand hurt? That was a real screamer."

I shook my head. Kern and Henry patted me on the back.Leon stared directly at me, his expression shocked, then dissolving into a smile as he flashed a thumbs-up at me.

"Okay, it's three balls and two strikes," Nicole said a few pitches later. She rolled the ball nervously in her hands. "Unless the batter fouls the ball off, the game ends right here. A hit'll score three runs for sure because we've got faster runners on base, and they'll be moving with the pitch."

"Let's go fish! Let's go fish! Let's go fish!"

Crack! A line drive to the left side of the infield. The third baseman leaped, missing the ball by inches. The shortstop lunged, stretched out as far as his limbs could reach, but barely missed the ball. The fellow in the outfield charged forward.

One run. Two runs.

The fellow on first had nearly reached second when the ball was hit. He steamed toward third. The surrogate leader standing behind third base made a wide windmill motion with his arm. The runner spun around the base without hesitation.

The outfielder scooped up the ball and hurled it toward home plate with all his might.

A few strides from home, the runner leaped hands first, arms fully outstretched and slid in the dirt toward the plate.

The throw bounced once. The catcher, standing in front of the plate, clearly in the runner's path, caught the ball cleanly four feet in the air, then thrust his glove down hard onto the runner's back.

The crowd hushed, waited. For a long, pregnant moment, the umpire stared at the tangle of bodies, seeming to wait for the dust to clear.

The umpire crossed his arms in front of his chest, then thrust them sharply apart.

The crowd roared. Henry and Kern jumped up and down.Leon faced the crowd, arms raised in the air, fists pumping. Nicole wrapped her arms around my neck, jumping up and down.

It took a moment to realize that this was victory. Victory! Let the British keep their cricket! Their game has not the passion or drama of this moment.

****

The ride back to the Crystal Corner was quiet; my fellow cabbies were happy, but emotionally drained.

"Coming in?" Kern asked when we arrived at the bar.

"No," I replied, having had more than enough humanity for one night. "I think I shall just go home and quietly savor this stunning victory."

"Well, thanks for driving, Count," Henry said.

Kern and Henry departed, but Nicole lingered. "You enjoyed yourself, Al?"

"Yes, I did. Surprisingly so. Thanks for describing what was happening. I do not think the contest would have made sense without your illuminating narrative."

She laughed lightly. "You sure do have a funny way of phrasing things." Nicole paused a moment, looking down at her hands which still held the baseball as if it were a fine jewel. "You sure your hand's okay?"

I held out my hand for her inspection. No tell-tale signs betrayed the collision. "Immortality," I said, "means near-instant tissue regeneration. Had the ball struck your hand, or Kern's, or even Henry's ample paw, or any mortal at the ballpark, a visit to the hospital would have been necessary to repair crushed bones and smashed blood vessels."

Nicole gazed at me thoughtfully. "You arecompletely invulnerable?"

"No." I shook my head. "The heart. That is one area whereHollywood is not dealing in complete fantasy. A sharpened wooden stake, though crude, would, as you Americans say, do the job, as would a bullet or a knife."

"The heart." She bit her lip. "A vulnerable heart. Can a vampire's heart be broken?"

"Yes."

After a short, awkward silence, she took my hand, surreptitiously stroking it with a finger. "You know, this was fun. I mean, considering all that happened, it was nice to just have a nice, normal time. And - " She paused demurely. "And, if wecould have nice, normal times, well, I'd like to see you again. What do you think?"

What do you think?

Are there four more imposing words in this infernal language?