The Only Nolan
Nolan went down there and asked them about the job again but they still said they had four -- now maybe five -- men who’d applied for it and he should come in again on Monday week; they might know something by then. The hiring office was across the street from the café at Franklin and Main where he always drank iced tea. When he opened the screen door Betty said “Hi, Eddy.” She was behind the lunch counter where she almost always was, almost around the clock.
“Hey, Betty, how about some iced tea?”
“We’re out of ice. What’s the story on the job?” she asked.
“They said four or five of us are up for it, but I won’t get it. They didn’t say that, but I won’t. They’ve already got somebody else figured for it, I could tell.”
“Well, then they shouldn’t leave a hook in your cheek.”
“No, but that’s how people do things.”
“That’s what’s so crappy about most jobs -- get the runaround and then get told no,” she said. “There was a guy in here this morning who said they might be hiring over at the cotton warehouse, but it would be at least another month.”
“Yeah, I heard about it. I already went over there and got on the list. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
“Well, it’s like the Bible says about the lilies of the field…‘of the smallest of these that are so much under my power…”
He looked at her. “I don’t think that’s how it goes,” he said, and grinned.
“…it’s some kind of crap like that, but you know what I mean,” she said.
“Yeah. Hey, has that crazy old cat been around?”
“He was here this morning walking along the ledge, then hopped off at the corner and hopped back up and walked all the way down in front of the front window. There’s something wrong with him. Twenty minutes later he comes back and does the same thing. Crazy.”
“He just goes around the block,” Nolan said.
“Everybody feeds him.”
“Well, that’s why he does it,” he said.
“Sure. I don’t fault him. I wish that was all I had to do,” Betty said.
They both looked out the window at the passing carts and wagons. It was hot as hell. The same two flies kept inching across the counter. Betty pulled her swatter and let them both have it. Nolan used his napkin to get rid of the bloody spots.
“I guess you need another napkin,” she said, laughing.
“I hope so.”
“Look -- here he comes, again,” she said. Sure enough, the old black-and-white was padding along the side ledge, his head hanging in the heat.
“Hey. Grab some meat out of the back and we’ll catch him out front. Hurry up,” Nolan told her. “And get some water.” She came back and they went out on the sidewalk and put the ball of meat and water in the cat’s path.
The cat helped himself. He didn’t even look up.
“You know, if you keep on doing this you can get him to stay around here,” Nolan said.
“Why would I want to?”
“Just something to do. He might catch rats. He looks old, though” he said.
They went back inside. It wasn’t any cooler in the café than it was on the sidewalk, but at least it was shady.
“Say, you still like red wine, don’t you?” she asked him.
“Sure do. We split a bottle over at your place one time, or did you forget?”
“I was thinking we could split another one tonight.”
“Can’t, I’ve got a ball game before dark,” he said.
“Miljecki’s Field, a couple of blocks from your place, if you still live in the same place you used to.” He liked Betty. She was pretty, and she seemed to like him, too. She was maybe in her late twenties. They’d spent some time together a couple of years ago, nothing serious.
“Yeah, same place. Look, I close at six. Nobody ever comes in here after six. What time’s the game?”
“Six, six-thirty -- just shirt-sleeves, barefoot. You want to come? We could swing by your place, get started on that wine and finish it off after the game,” he said.
“I can’t stay up late,” she said. “I got to be here at six in the morning. We could have a couple of glasses before the game, though, and you could fix my window. It wouldn’t take you two seconds. I can’t stay up, though.”
“You sure that’s all you want me to fix?”
“We can get a bottle for some other night -- Saturday, maybe. I thought you played ball on Thursdays…you used to.”
“We changed it to Tuesdays,” Nolan said.
He sat at the counter and drank coffee until she closed up, then they went outside and walked around the corner. The sun hadn’t gone down, not by a long way, and it was still hotter than holy hell. Betty lived in a rooming house on Louisiana Street where they allowed male visitors even though Houston was in the Bible belt.
While Betty opened the wine, Nolan got her window up. It didn’t take much effort. They sat and talked for a little while.
“Sure you don’t want to go to the game?” he asked her. Her cheeks were a little rosier after two glasses of wine. He thought she might have changed her mind.
“I guess so. You going to hit a homer for me?” she asked, her eyes moved back and forth as if she was embarrassed to look him in the eye. Then, maybe having thought the better of it, she settled her gaze and looked straight at him. “Well, are you going to hit one for me?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’ll sure try,” Nolan said, and laughed. It was his turn to glance away.
They walked through the heavy heat over to the field. The air was swarming with lightening-bugs, clouds of them that floated just above the grass. Gas lamps were perched on poles above the diamond but the light didn’t reach the outfield. It was impossible to see a fly ball. There were lots of triples when games ran over into dark. Ball-players could have two free sodas, so Nolan got one for Betty and sat beside her in the bleachers while he took off his shoes.
“I brought the rest of the wine,” she said. “Want some?”
“You’re dangerous. Yeah, I’ll take a sip…we got a few minutes,” he said.
The game didn’t get started until it was almost dark. Nolan and Betty watched the big-winged moths battering themselves against the pole-lights.
“Why do they do that, I wonder? It’s not even dark,” Betty said.
“I don’t know, they don’t have any better sense, I guess,” Nolan said, and laughed.
Betty sipped her root beer.
“Ed, what are you going to do if you don’t get that warehouse job…or another one?”
“Go up north and try to play ball, I figure. Indianapolis is starting up a team,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think I’ve got much choice. People around here aren’t going to get into a league anytime soon, and it pays pretty good during the season, if you know what you’re doing...and I do.” She felt her heart fall, plummet like a moth hitting a pole-light, leaving the sky forever. Nolan hit a homer in the third. It rose into the darkness above centerfield where she wished she was -- closer to the first pale stars that had emerged.
She slept beneath the window he’d raised…not because there was still a trace of him in the room, but because it was cooler. Maybe it just seemed cooler because he’d been there. That thought occurred to her.
Silver Flint was Nolan’s catcher in Cleveland and everywhere else.
“I got my own catcher. If he doesn’t play, I don’t play -- I don’t want any other pitchers on the squad, either. Put another pitcher on the list and I’ll quit you quicker than Peter quit Jesus,” Nolan told the Blues owner, whose eyes were so heavy with booze he couldn’t keep his head off his desk.
“I mean it, ten dollars a game -- Silv and I will split it,” Nolan said.
“Who the hell are you?” the owner slurred.
“Who am I? I’m your goddamn pitcher and this is my fucking catcher…”
“Well…Fucking Catcher, Goddamn Pitcher, I’m glad to know you…so, twenty-five dollars is your price, huh? Damn, you drive a hellacious bargain, son, but I’ll buy in…go out there and play some ball,” the owner said.
Nolan and Silv looked at each other and grinned.
“Come on, man…let’s play some ball,” Nolan said.
The seats -- bare planks -- held maybe a hundred people, but not nearly that many showed up.
“Who the hell are you?” the team’s manager demanded to know.
“I’m your only pitcher, and this guy’s your catcher,” Nolan said.
“Not on this team you’re not. I don’t even know who the hell you’re supposed to be,” the manager said. Nolan pulled his pistol and slapped the man across the cheek. “ On his way to the mound he cocked the revolver and pointed it at the pitcher.
“Get the hell out of here. I got nothing against you, but I’ll kill you where you stand if you get between me and twenty-five dollars.”
“Me, too,” Silver shouted. “You sorry bastard.”
“Hey, Silv, there’s no need for that. I’ll shoot the sob if I have to, but there’s no reason to talk to him that way,” Nolan said.
“Yeah, but there’s two of them -- a pitcher and a catcher. That’s why I got so ugly,” Silver explained. “I’m sorry, if I was…”
“Fine. And you, mister magic…I told you to get the hell out of here. Don’t make me tell you again,” Nolan said to the pitcher.
The pitcher and his catcher left hurriedly. They were on the opposing team. Nolan got them mixed up. The umpire made Ed and Silver sit that one out, outside the park. On his way out Nolan confronted the manager, who was still only semi conscious.
“We’re not supposed to be first at bat,” Nolan shouted at him. “What the hell’s going on here? This is crazy. I need to straighten out somebody’s ass. This is crazy.”
“By…agreement…changed the order…,” the manager mumbled. His eye was swollen shut.
“You can’t do your job, you can’t make deals like that. You’re fired,” Nolan thundered, without any authority even to fire himself.
A week later the Allegheny Greens were out in front four to two. The dust on the field rose into red clouds fifty feet high. Nolan peered into the dust looking for the batter.
“I can’t even see the son of a bitch,” Nolan hollered at the umpire. “Send his ass on over to first.”
“No, you pitch and mind your own damned business,” the umpire hollered back.
“Don’t pitch me wide. I need to bat,” the batter called out. He looked pissed.
The sun was beating down horribly. Nolan was in no mood for altruism, but he felt an obligation to humanity.
“You got a family?” he shouted at the batter.
“I’m going to hit you in the foot. I need you on first so we can make the play. Okay?”
“It’ll have to do,” the guy said. He was genuinely angry. There was nothing he could do about it.
“Well, if it’s not okay, tell me. I can hit you in the leg if you want.”
“No, foot’s better.”
“Don’t move your feet. Okay?”
Three nights later the owner’s private detectives found Nolan passed out in a whore house.
“We were…rehearsing some spiritual tunes we were planning to sing at…an orphan’s…thing,” Nolan protested, and in fact told the Judge after he was arrested in his underwear.
“I won’t put up with your bullshit. You fuck me over and you’re out of this game for good, you fucking moron. Hear me? Hear me good, whiney boy? In fact, if you don’t go out there and win today you’re finished. Now, get out of my sight,” the Cleveland owner said.
“Can I have my catcher?” Nolan asked, solemnly.
“Yeah, take that worthless sob, if you really want him…”
Cleveland had a real pitcher’s mound, not just a patch of dirt. Nolan had never seen a mound with a slope. It felt funny, but he quickly figured that you can get more leverage with elevation, however slight. The first hitter was Hobberfield, first baseman. Nolan burned three in a row by him. The guy missed all three.
"Go work in a fucking shoe store,” Nolan hollered at him. “Go dip ice cream, jaybird.”
He did the same thing to the next two guys.
“Man, you’re throwing hard,” Silver said.
“This ain’t a dribbler’s game, Silver -- the Good Lord wouldn’t put up with that,” Nolan said. When Nolan’s turn came he slammed one into the crowd in the top of the second. He hit another with two on.
“That was a goddamned good inning,” he said in the dugout.
He blew it by them again in the third -- three up, three down. It went like that until the eighth when Silver almost hit one out of the park. It didn’t look like it was going to make it. Nolan had already drained nine beers in the dugout.
“Hey, look out for that fence,” he shouted at the outfielder who was in full flight. There was no fence. The outfielder cut his speed while the ball vanished into the crowd.
“What do you mean ‘cheat?” Nolan screamed at the umpire. “Are you trying to tell me I don’t have the same freedom of speech our forefathers promised us? What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey, dumb-ass there’s no fence in case you’re too fucking stupid to notice.” What’s the matter with you…are you out of your goddamn mind?” The League imposed a hundred-fifty dollar fine and two year’s suspension.
“Why was that such a big damned deal? I don’t get it,” Nolan shouted at the owner.
“I warned you. I told you to keep your goddamned mouth shut, but you don’t listen to a damned thing. You won’t play for me again, ever -- even if you’re still a player in two years you won’t play for me. Get the hell out of here,” the owner said.
Nolan came across the same ad in two newspapers: “Football players wanted. Schelkirk Field, Saturday 10 a.m. Ten dollar games. Must practice.”
Any idiot could play football, he figured. He went over there on Saturday, around eleven. Fifty guys were standing around on a weedy vacant lot. Some guy hollered for them to line up, two deep.
“I’m Coach Feedler. We need fifteen guys. You’ll run through some hoops, we’ll see what you can do, if anything, and no charges will be filed if you actually hit somebody, which is the actual fucking point. Got it?” said a bald-headed man with a black mole on his lip. His nose looked like it had been inflamed and runny for ages.
“Can we get to the point?” Nolan hollered. He’d had more than a couple of beers on the way over. They were starting to wear off and he didn’t feel so good.
“Yeah, we can get to it right now,” Coach said, inches from Nolan’s face. “You don’t look to me like you’ve ever played a down.”
“I might have. What’s a down?”
“That’s what I thought. Have you ever even seen a football game, son?”
“Little girls play it outside the kitchen window -- down wind from the dog crap,” Nolan said, and smirked.
“Why in the hell are you out here, dumb-ass?”
“Ten bucks. It’s off season for the real game,” Nolan said.
“What’s the ‘real game?”
“Baseball. What’d you think?”
“That’s the real game, huh? Okay, you guys to count off and the first eleven line up in a circle,” Coach Feedler ordered. He went over and talked to them, then came back to Nolan and smiled. “See those high weeds way down there? Well, you take this ball and run down there into those high weeds. Got it? These boys are going to try to tackle you.” Eleven of them spread out.
“What’s ‘tackle’ mean?” Nolan asked, even though he’d already figured it out. He had a blackjack concealed in his fist.
“They’re job is to slam your ass to the ground,” Coach said.
“They can try. You don’t really want these boys hurt, do you? I mean…I thought you were trying to build a team,” Nolan said, and grinned.
Coach laughed. “I need to get rid of some folks.” He tossed the ball. Nolan flattened the first two tacklers. It went down hill after that. They upended him by the ankles, and then beat the hell out of him. He lost three teeth. The same thing happened when he answered an ad that said: “Professional Pugilists Only.”
Nolan thought it might be a good idea to hop the rails down to Houston and see Betty. Her blue eyes had been on his mind on and off for weeks. It wasn’t as if he had anything else going on. But jumping a box car wasn’t easy. First, you had to do it in the dark so the railroad guards see you. You had to spot a car where decent boys were already on board and could help you get on, too. Finally, the train had to be moving fairly slowly -- coming into or leaving town -- so you’d at least have a chance at getting a good leap. Nolan got lucky. Two Negroes grabbed his wrists and yanked him up while he ran along side as fast as he could.
“Get on up kid, I ain’t got my old strength,” one of them hollered.
“He can do it -- just watch him,” the other one said.
“Two good friends,” Nolan said when he landed on board. He held his sore knees and caught his breath. “Good friends for life,” he said.
“I’m Boony, he’s Savior. What’s yo’ name? Where you from?”
“Nowhere. I got fired. I’m The Only Nolan, the pitcher. Think this line runs all the way down to Houston?”
“Baseball? Man, I love baseball. Why’d they fire you…for what?” Boony asked.
“I know who he is,” Savior interjected. “He’s the one that got fired the other day -- am I right?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Nolan said.
“I knew it. I said it,” Savior said.
“They fired you? What for?” Boony enquired.
“For having a smart mouth,” Nolan said.
“Well, shit, that ain’t nothing. Jesus had a smart mouth and look at him,” Boony said.
“Yeah, and look at what they done to his ass,” Savior said.
“What’d you said, kid?” Boony asked.
“Cussed an umpire.”
“Cussed an umpire? Shit, that’s what they there for. Sons of bitches get paid to get cussed, ain’t they? I wish they’d pay my ass for it. They fired you for that shit?” Boony asked.
“That’s what he just done got through saying, man,” Savior explained.
“Shut the hell up, Savior. It don’t call for your kind of stupid,” Boony said.
“I’m just saying…”
“I don’t need your opinion. When I do I’ll slap your ass awake and ask for it,” Boony said. Savior lapsed into silence. Boony was twice, maybe three times Savior’s size.
Boony and Savior almost got off at Texarkana. They both had family nearby, but when the train pulled into town it didn’t look like such a good idea.
“Man, they’ll string us up and burn our ass for nothing,” Savior assessed. “I’m going on to Houston. They hate niggers in a better way.”
“You guys know how to play baseball?” Nolan asked.
“Why can’t they play? Give me a reason,” Nolan demanded of the Houston Police Captain.
“They’re coloreds,” the cop said.
“I know that part. Why can’t coloreds play ball? They’re good guys and it’s only a game, for God’s sake. What’s wrong with you?” Nolan argued. The last question earned him a smack across the nose with a blackjack. Savior and Boony rushed over to pick him up.
“Hey, chief, we don’t want to play no baseball, we ain’t even asking it,” Boony told the cop.
“No, we don’t,” Savior added.
They hadn’t taken off their shoes. They already knew nobody was going to let them play. The three of them slept in the weeds off the third-base line. Nolan woke up with a broken nose and a splitting -- worse than that -- headache.
It turned out Betty had passed away about a year ago from female cancer, or something. Nolan didn’t find that out until he went over to the café, on Tuesday. She’d never married, had no kids. The three refugees sat on the curb. Nolan stared into the street.
“If I knew where they buried her I’d go over and visit her,” Nolan said.
“There ain’t no way to get over it, man, you just got to live with it,” Boony said.
“You got to live with it,” Savior said, sorrowfully.
“You men didn’t know her,” Nolan said. “She was perfect.”
“We all re, for somebody…maybe for lots of folks,” Boony said.
“A whole hell of a lot of them,” Savior said.
“I’ve decided to go back east and look for a job. Ya’ll are welcome to come with me, if you want to,” Nolan told them. “But they’re not going let you play ball up there, either.”
“Up east where?”
“Shoot, that damn place is too damn cold for me. Good luck to you, Nolan,” Boony said and put his hand on Nolan’s shoulder.
“Almighty God in his grace be with you,” Savior said.
Sprinkles -- a tiny three-headed dog purchased from the circus -- was chosen by the ball club’s owner, Jimmy Tallmadge, as the official mascot of the Philadelphia Quakers, the new National League team. Only two of the dog’s heads were functional -- the third one just took up space. There was a public debate, mainly in the newspapers, as to the appropriateness of the selection, but Tallmadge had already ordered miniature ball caps -- one for each head -- even the one that didn’t work, and he stood by his decision. Nolan met with him.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” Nolan murmured to Silver.
“You’ve been with five teams in five years, suspended four times, and you’ve done a rotten job for each one of them. Give me a clue as to why I should even talk to you,” Tallmadge said, looking over his drink and fingering a scorpion that had no stinger.
“He was not rotten…he’s a great pitcher…ask anybody who knows the game,” Silver said.
“I’m not talking to your stupid ass,” Tallmadge said.
“That fucker is bleeding green all over your desk,” Nolan pointed out, referring the scorpion.
“I guess so -- I just now cut its stinger off -- just like I’ll cut yours off if you don’t win. I’m not going to put up with your bullshit, not for a second. Understand me?”
“It just so happens that I’m very fond of three-headed dogs,” Nolan said. “That’s the only reason I want to play here.”
“Keep your ass out of the whore houses and beer joints, hear me?”
“No chance of me going astray,” Nolan said, laughing.
“Show me some respect.”
“Not fucking likely. I’ll win for you, but don’t ask me the impossible.”
“We’re already on a downhill path, son. How does fifty dollars a week sound?” Tallmadge asked.
“Make it seventy if I can keep my catcher and you pay him, and fire all your other pitchers. Then, we might have a deal.”
“Not much of a Christian attitude.”
“I made all Fs in Bible College.”
“Where’d you come up with this ‘Only Nolan’ shit,” the owner asked.
“I didn’t,” Nolan said.
“People call him that because he don’t allow any other pitchers on the squad,” Silver said.
Nolan waited half the season for a chance to bean a fastball off that three-headed dog. He was sick of looking at it. Finally, the opportunity arose. The Childress Missions were up at bat. Tallmadge, who usually kept the freak beside him in the dug-out, decided to chain Sprinkles along the third-base line because it had bad diarrhea. Nolan left the mound and walked over to home plate to have a word with his catcher. The batter walked over; so did the umpire.
“See that fucking three-headed dog over there, the one with the squirts?” Nolan asked. The umpire and batter nodded.
“I’ve seen that damned thing too many times,” the umpire said.
“Me too,” the batter said.
“Well, I’m going to kill the son of a bitch,” Nolan said, and grinned. “Look, I’ll toss you one you can turn into a triple, but don’t hit it too hard -- if you hit it into the crowd the deal’s off. I’ve got to throw to third and miss. The fielder’s in on it. He’ll throw to me by mistake and I’ll nail the bastard. Okay?”
“And keep your mouths shut -- okay?”
When the fastball struck, the middle head almost exploded.
“Nice catch,” Silver hollered. The owner didn’t think so. The other team laughed their heads off. Late that night, the police arrested Nolan in the beer joint.
“What the hell is this all about?” Nolan asked.
“Destruction of personal property,” the officer said.
“You mean that damned three-headed dog? Shit…I’d be ashamed to say I even owned the son of a bitch.”
That was the end of the major leagues for Nolan. He ran a bar and whore house for a while, was later hired as a cop, and then, during the Spanish-American War, he disappeared. Some folks said he was shot dead on San Juan Hill. Others believed he died in New Jersey a few months before the Kaiser invaded France. Still others said he went overseas with Princess Pat’s Light Infantry, a Canadian outfit, and threw fastballs at the krauts until he lost his leg. Most folks didn’t have any idea what had really happened to him. One thing for sure, the players know who can play the game, and who can’t. They still talk about Nolan.
©2007 by James Dawes