“Another hot dog?” Tommy asked me.
I shook my head at the old man. I’d had three of the damned things already. Each one had been like a log. Tommy loved them, but they were wasted on me. I was more convinced than ever that professional chefs shouldn’t make hot dogs. They turned out beautifully, but I never knew whether to eat one or have my picture taken with it. I rubbed the angry, sore wound on my chest and wondered if I really wanted to add on layers of heartburn.
Tommy started in on his fourth dog and stared out across the ball field, watching the old-timers trade places on the field. No one had scored. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Hot, but not too humid. A good day for the old men. The heat would warm their bones, but the low humidity would cut down on the potential deaths. A concern when all of your players are over seventy five years old.
“Kids or Kubs?” Tommy asked me, still trying to pass me the hot dog tray.
I ignored the hot dogs and asked, “Which is which?”
He pointed in the general direction of the field, at no one in particular. “The old guys there are the Kubs.”
I nodded. “And the others are the Kids, I take it?”
I shrugged. “I’ll take the Kubs, then. Twenty bucks?”
Tommy paused and chewed it over, but shrugged and, reluctantly, nodded. “Steep. But I’ll take it. Twenty it is.”
We shook on it. Our traditional, ritualized bet. It was redundant. We had missed most of the game, thanks to my delay. But tradition was tradition. We both would feel strange if we met to watch the game and discussed business but didn’t make the bet. It was one of those bizarre, sports-related rituals. The Universe might unravel without our nurturing. We did it whether it made sense or not. Just to be on the safe side. We’d made the bet ever since I took Tommy to his first Kids & Kubs game, decades before, and he’d asked which were the Kids and which were the Kubs. I’d ragged him about it ever since. A silly tradition had nevertheless taken on a special importance to us.
A wistful expression danced across Tommy’s face. He was getting something out of the game that I was not. All I was getting was heartburn from the hot dogs.
“Want me to see if they’ll let you play?” I asked him.
He winced dramatically. “You’re not happy unless you’re ragging me, are you?”
I shrugged. “We take our fun where we can get it.”
Tommy huffed. “Glad I still amuse you. Some of us have to age, you know.” Under his breath, he grumbled, “Fucking vampires.”
He looked around us. Beyond the ballpark. The back of the immense Savoy Hotel. Citizens and tourists meandered about in the surrounding park. I followed his gaze and soaked up the area. Soft, warm breezes danced across our skin. Children laughed as they played in the parks around us. Somewhere fresh grass had been cut. Someone nearby was grilling hamburgers. But Tommy was looking at the people right around us. In the team dugouts. At the announcer. The scorekeeper. Other than the players and staff, around us there were only a handful of people in the stands.
“Five people,” Tommy grumbled, shaking his head. “These stands used to fill up.”
“Yeah,” I answered. He was right. More people used to care. “But it is a Tuesday. I guess people have to work. Early in the season, too.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that so much. Just seems like there’d be more retirees. Supporting the home team and all that. More family.”
I shrugged again. Tommy was more melancholy than usual. I never know what to say to him when he was like that. I respected him enough not to say anything. Or at least to not call him out on it. “Times change,” I heard myself say.
Tommy said quickly, “Guess I was just thinking that I would’ve been eligible to play with these guys in a few more years.”
I chuckled. “You? Play baseball? You’ll celebrate your seventy fifth on the beach somewhere drinking margaritas and leering at barely legal girls in bikinis.”
A faint crack of a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “I didn’t say I’d actually play. Just that I’d be old enough.”
I laughed. “Yeah. That’s what I thought.”
Tommy let loose a big grin and took another bite of his hot dog. On the field the players fanned out again and took their positions for the next inning. Home team in white in the field. Visitors in red at bat. I’d never figured out how they determined who played with who. They were all basically the same guys, split up into teams. Did some guys get pissed if they’re assigned to the “visitors” team?
I still admired the old guys. Most retirees parked somewhere and waited to die. It took determination to get out there and make old bones run around bases when you were over seventy five years old. And they all were. Moxey, some of them would call it. I’d watched hundreds of games through the years. Thousands. Every year since they started in 1932, I caught at least one game every season. I’d done it with Tommy for at least twenty years. Every season there were new faces. Replacements for players who had died, or had just gotten too old and worn out to play. I admired those old guys. They all knew it was their last hoorah outside of their families. Their last chance to hang out with their friends, with the sun shining on their faces, knocking around a few balls in honor of those little kids that were still so alive and well inside those battered old bodies. All they were really after was a chance to prove to themselves that they were still alive.
God help me, I knew how that felt.
An abrasive noise rose around us. It took me a moment to realize my cell phone was ringing. No one ever called me but Raven and Tommy. I wasn’t used to hearing it. The racket earned me annoyed glances from those around us, so I let it ring a few more times before picking it up. I looked down at the screen and sighed. Raven’s name blinked on the display. Right. Like I was going there. I turned off the ringer, set the phone to vibrate and shoved it back into my pocket. There was no way I was arguing with Raven during a baseball game. It was her job to bring me to heel. But I wasn’t ready to play nice just yet.
Tommy sat bolt upright and pumped his fist in the air. I looked out over the field, trying to piece together what had happened. A batter had just knocked a ball into left field, driving in a runner and scoring a home run for himself. The home team was now up, 2-0. I didn’t know anyone was on base. I hadn’t notice the visitors had struck out.
“How about that?” Tommy snapped at me, supporting his team.
I shrugged. “Lucky hit,” I told him.
I smiled, enjoying another tradition. Tommy always pulled for the home team. I cheered for the visitors. Neither of us could have named a player on either side. The personnel rotated often. But was something to bet on. That seemed to be the important thing. Tommy settled back down. He finished off his hot dog and offered me the tray with the remaining one. I shook my head.
“Oh, come on,” Tommy teased, still holding the tray out to me. “Marcos had Frenchie make these especially for us. It’ll break the old guy’s heart if we don’t eat ‘em.”
“Which old guy? Marcos or Frenchie?”
“Either one. For different reasons.” Tommy’s eyes widened. “Oh! By the way, Marcos wanted me to ask you to come see him. I almost forgot.”
“Lucky you didn’t. No more hot dogs for you.”
“Marcos wouldn’t do that to me. Who else would eat his gourmet hot dogs?”
I nodded. “You’re probably right about that.” I watched him for a long moment. Waiting for more information. When none is forthcoming, I said, “That’s it? Marcos didn’t say what he wants?”
Tommy shook his head and clicked his tongue. “He didn’t say. And I’m far too polite, and smart, to meddle in the affairs of… you people.”
“‘You people?’” I teased, and grinned. “Hater.”
“Hey, you’re the one who runs with the children of the night. I’m just a humble real estate broker.” He shook the tray at me again. “You going to eat this thing or what?”
“Yeah, right. I’m going to eat another one.” I glared at him playfully, shaking my head, but he wouldn’t relent. I took the last hot dog from the tray so he could sit it down and we could move. The hot dog stared back at me. I didn’t know if I could eat another one. “You eat shit. You know that, Tommy? And you’re losing weight. How do you eat this crap and lose weight? It’s not right.”
He grinned, but a shadow crossed his face. He didn’t expand on it, so I let it go. We both returned to watching the game. The next few innings went by quickly. No one scored. Mostly, I thought about Marcos. I hadn’t spoken to him in years. Not directly, anyway. What could he want? That was worrisome. Marcos wasn’t one for small talk. If he wanted to see me, it wasn’t to rehash old times. Or for me to try out his latest recipe. He needed help with something. And if he was sending for me instead of just calling, it was pretty fucking serious. It meant he was keeping a professional distance.
The cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I didn’t need to look at it to know who it was. I didn’t dig it out. Raven could leave a voice message. This was my time. I’d address whatever fallout I had to when it was time.
“You know,” Tommy said, without looking at me, “I’ve never really asked you about it.”
I nodded absently, wondering if I should just turn the phone off. “About what?”
He paused. A long pause. “You know. What it’s like.”
I looked over at him. He was watching me. Looking into my eyes. Trying to read my thoughts. Never a good sign. I tried to chew down the big bite I’d just taken, with Tommy watching me the entire time. It’s creepy to have another man watch you eat a hot dog. I’d missed something in his meaning. He wanted me to key in.
“Why, Tommy,” I said in a loud voice, “you’ve never been interested in my penis before.” A couple of elderly ladies sitting below us turned and glared at me. I grinned. “Well,” I told them, “he hasn’t.”
Tommy blushed, but kept staring at me. He cracked only a faint smile. Minor acknowledgement. “I’m serious,” he said. “In all the time I’ve known you, or at least the time I’ve known about… well, you know… I’ve never asked you about it. You don’t seem to want to talk about it. So I never asked.”
I watched him. Matched his gaze. Glanced out across the field. Back to Tommy. “So?” I wondered aloud, “why do you ask now?” A troubled cloud crossed his face. A heavy one. I’d known him long enough to know what that meant. “Christ, Tommy. What’s wrong?”
He looked away. Also not a good sign. Tommy stared at his feet for long moments, took a deep breath, and fixed me with a look. It was his way of bracing for impact. There was something important that he had to tell me, and he didn’t know how to go about it. I’d known him long enough to know what this discomfort meant.
“There’s just no easy way to say it,” he finally said. “So I’ll just say it.”
When he didn’t continue, I asked, “Say what, Tommy?”
He grimaced and paused, watching me. “Cancer,” he finally blurted. “I have pancreatic cancer.”
I stared at him. Swallowed my first thoughts. It was kind of a random thing to spring on someone. Pancreatic cancer. At a baseball game, no less. There I was hoping someone had actually taken an interest in my penis. But after a minute or so it started to sink in. Tommy wasn’t kidding. Not that I thought he was. But I didn’t know how to process it. What do you say to someone who just told you they have cancer? Are there even words? Somehow my usual smart-ass remark didn’t seem appropriate.
“Geez, Tommy…” I finally said, with typical eloquence.
He grinned. “I wish I had a camera. You look like you’re about to bolt and run.”
I shook my head quickly. “Don’t say that. You just… surprised me. That’s kind of random, you know.”
An uneasy silence settled between us. We both went back to watching the ball game. What was left of it, bottom of the seventh and all. The old guys on the field weren’t much older than Tommy. But he might never get the chance to play with then. Not that he would anyway. That wasn’t the point. One remark he’d made stuck in my head. He would’ve been eligible to play. Would have. Not will be.
“How long?” I asked him, and winced at my own lack of tactfulness.
“Three months,” Tommy said flatly. “Maybe six. Who knows? They say some people can live up to five years with it.”
“So I’m not rid of you yet?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No. Not yet.”
Another silence settled over us. We both watched the old-timers rounding the bases. Someone had hit a double. I didn’t check the score. It wasn’t as important now. Not that it ever was. Except maybe for betting purposes. I mean… pancreatic cancer. That was harsh. Fatal. Almost always fairly advanced before they even find it. It explained the weight loss. Tommy wasn’t likely to ever get out there with the Kids ‘N’ Kubs and feel the sun on his face as he re-lived his youth. He’d never stand on the freshly raked dirt of the infield and revel in the smell of its earthiness, even as he sneezed from the dust. Tommy deserved that much. Those few, precious moments. He deserved to have his wife sitting in the stands, cheering him on through a cloud of perfume and talcum powder, defying the approach of death for a few more years.
It slowly dawned on me what Tommy was hinting around at. Why he suddenly wanted to know “what it’s like”. If a dying man wants to live, he’ll consider all options. Even the most unspeakable of all.
“Oh,” I said aloud without meaning to. “Hey… listen, Tommy. You’re not…”
“You know what I’m getting at,” he said flatly.
I dragged the tray over to me and dropped what was left of my hot dog into it. I wasn’t hungry before. Now I felt ill. Wished I hadn’t eaten the others. Some of them might come back up. I felt like I’d just skated far out onto thin ice. Could almost hear the reverberant hum of the cracks reaching out to take me. This wasn’t a subject I ever expected to discuss with Tommy. It had always been the one thing we never talked about. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him and all that.
I stammered, “I don’t think you…”
“Don’t presume to know what I want,” Tommy said crisply. But he grimaced, immediately regretting his tone. He took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m sorry, Crewe. It’s just a bad time, you know?”
I nodded. “Does Jenny know?” I asked about his wife. “Do the kids?”
“No,” he replied softly. “Not yet.” He glanced at me. “I was kind of hoping I might never have to tell her.”
“Meaning me. You don’t know what you’re asking,” I told him.
“No,” he mused to himself. “Probably not. Which is why I’m asking you. What’s it like?”
I took a deep breath. There was no avoiding it. But maybe we needed to talk about it. Maybe it was long overdue.
“It’s not like in the movies,” I told him.
“We established that a long time ago. I don’t think I could be your friend if it was.”
I leaned in close to him, so that only he can hear. “Listen, Tommy. I want you to get this out of your head. Right now. You have a wife and children and grandchildren. What you’re asking would make you give all that up.”
“Shouldn’t it be my choice?” he said impulsively.
“What? To leave your wife? Give up your family?”
“No. I could never give up my family. I’d find some…”
“You’d have to, Tommy. That’s the way it works. If I brought you over, you wouldn’t even have the same body. How would Jenny deal with that? How would your grandkids? Would you tell her? Or would you just show up as someone else and try to woo the grieving widow?”
“I’d be the same man inside, wouldn’t I? I’d still be me.”
“No. You wouldn’t. You’d be different. Everything would be different. Your perceptions would change. Your appetites. Your needs would change.” I shook my head. I didn’t know how to even begin to explain it. “Tommy, if nothing else, think about this. Think about watching Jenny die. Think about watching your kids get old and die. And your grandkids, too. You’d outlive them all.”
He took a deep breath. “I’m not afraid of dying,” he said softly, “if that’s what you think. I’m just not ready, Crewe. If I could just get a few more years. Just a few more.”
I rested my hand on his and squeezed it. “It doesn’t work like that,” I told him again. “Geez, Tommy. Think about poor Jenny. You’d be full of life and energy again, and she’d still be hobbling along. What about all that pain in her hip? Could you live with yourself, knowing you felt like new and she was still suffering?”
“That’s not a fair comparison. I could bring her over. You could bring her over.”
“And then what? Your kids, too? Your grandkids?”
“Well, you said,” he started loudly, and quickly lowered his voice, “you don’t drink blood. You don’t kill people. How bad could it be?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I snapped at him. “It’s a hunger that never goes away, Tommy. It’s gnawed away at me for centuries. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
He nodded sadly. “Well, that’s a luxury of yours, isn’t it? You can afford to sit there and decide who lives and who dies…”
“Oh, shit,” I snapped, “don’t pull that guilt trip shit on me, Tommy Johnson. Do you really want your grandkids to be fucking nosferatu?”
“You said it wasn’t like in the movies…”
“Yeah. But I didn’t say it was a walk in the fucking park. Christ, Tommy. There are other considerations. Protocol. There are rules about bringing people over. Cultural issues. And not everyone is cut out for it. You know what happens to the ones who can’t cut it? You want to know what they do to the ones who…”
I stopped myself. I’d almost said too much. Had gotten too loud besides. People glanced in our direction. The ballgame ended at some point. Players trickled in from the field. They were milling about, talking to each other. Shaking hands. Telling jokes. Wandering off to their cars. Slipping their arms around their wives. I glanced over at Tommy. He was watching them, too. His face was sad. So sad. It lanced my heart to imagine the desperate thoughts that had to be racing through my friend’s mind. His was the face of a man who knew he was going to die and didn’t think it was right. Not so much that he was afraid of dying. It was the insult that was most unbearable. The universe had found him and decided that his life hadn’t been hard enough. The peace of his twilight years, which he’d rightfully earned, was being taken away from him. What was it all about? Birth. Adolescence. Puberty. Youth. Sex. Marriage. Kids. Grandkids. Retirement. Death. Sure, death was inevitable, but wasn’t there supposed to be a little more time between the retirement and the death? It wasn’t right.
I didn’t think it was right, either. But that was no reason to go off grasping at unspeakable things. Tommy didn’t know what he was asking.
“Fuck!” he grumbled under his breath. He shook his head. “You’re right, Crewe. I know you’re right. It’s just… really, it’s not the dying that bothers me so much. I just can’t bear the thought of leaving Jenny. What’s she going to do without me? Who’ll take care of her? My kids don’t even come see us at Christmas anymore. You think any of them are going to come down at take care of her?”
“Your kids might surprise you,” I told him. I’d met them. Self-obsessed like everybody else, maybe. But they were good, decent people. I couldn’t imagine them letting their mother fend for herself. “And you know I’d never let anything happen to Jenny. I hope you know that.”
My cellphone vibrated again. I jerked the phone out of my pocket, glanced at Raven’s name on the display, and almost tossed it out into the parking lot. The sudden rush of movement startled both of us. I glanced at Tommy. An apology. Instead, I turned off the phone and put it back in my pocket. I didn’t want any more interruptions. There were more important things going on at the moment. The peons and misfits at The Enclave could wait their turn.
“When I was a kid,” Tommy started, speaking softly and choosing his words carefully, “I would sit down there in the dirt and watch the old guys play. Dad brought me out here a lot. Not every week, mind you. But often enough.” He leaned back against the chain-link behind us and put his hands behind his head. “I don’t remember a lot about it now. Hell, I can barely remember Dad’s face. But the one clear memory I have of him is looking up here and seeing him in the bleachers, shading his eyes from the sun, watching the Kids & Kubs play.” He grinned suddenly, and looked at me. “You know, I remember that he had a friend, too. A strange looking fella. Well, strange to a kid, anyway. I used to pretend he was a secret agent and my dad was a spy.”
I nodded. Knew where he was going. “Yeah… go on.”
“I’ve been dreaming about that fella a lot lately,” he continued. “A lot. I can see his face as clearly as I’m looking at yours right now.” He looked out over the field again. “Funny how you just remember some things.”
“Was he as pretty as me?” I asked, and raised an eyebrow. It’s a ridiculous idea, that anyone could be as handsome as I.
Tommy chuckled. “Yup. He sure was.”
I took a deep breath and leaned back against the chain-link, too. A dozen different words and smart-ass phrases bubbled to the surface. None of which passed my lips. Instead, I told him, “Your father was a good man, Tommy.”
“Yeah,” he said thoughtfully. “He sure was.” He swallowed hard and fixed me with a hard look. “I’m scared of all this, Crewe.”
“I know,” I said, wishing I had better words to work with.
“I won’t promise I won’t ask you again. But I’m going to think about your points. I guess I just haven’t thought this whole thing out. All I was thinking about was how I might avoid that whole dying thing. For Jenny, you understand.”
I nodded. “Well, you think about it. If you want to know more about what it’s like, I’ll tell you everything. Just don’t rush into foolishness you know nothing about.”
“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “there are some things I’d like to know more about.”
“I’d sure like to know more about my daddy.”
I smiled. Easy enough. Tommy’s dad had been a character. We’d met in World War II, knee deep in the blood and filth of our comrades. As shells fell upon our position, with most of our division wiped out and German tanks bearing down upon us, Walter Johnson had leapt into the ditch I was in, gave me a hard look and shouted “I suspect you’re the one who pissed those people off. You look like trouble.” We were immediate friends. I stood by him for the rest of his life. And I’d stood by his son. Some debts could never be repaid.
“Tommy,” I told him truthfully, “I’d love to talk about your dad.”