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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Baseball, Handguns and Grass Carp (The Jersey Wheeler Experience)

Jersey Wheeler loved baseball—that much was for certain. In fact, I had witnessed Jersey Wheeler long before I ever met him,— while watching a baseball game on NBC in the 1970s. It was thesummer of ’73 or ’74, I think—and I was watching a game between
the then red-hot Big Red Machine and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the weekend, probably a Saturday.

I was lounging on the floor of my parents’ house in shorts,eating a Twinkie with some milk. Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek were handling the play-by-play duties. I settled in. Ball three, strike one was the count when Johnny Bench ripped a screaming foul ball down the first base side of the field. It went flying like a missile toward the area that was reserved for the photographers, just on the other side of the dugout. The alert photographers, no doubt veterans and not just a little gun-shy of these hundred fifty mile an hour bullets, hit the deck at the crack of the bat—except, that is, for Jersey Wheeler.

With three cans of a six-pack of beer dangling at his side in his right hand, held together by the plastic loops and an open can in his left, Jersey Wheeler stuck out like a sore thumb as the camera panned the scene. In live NBC color, Wheeler wore blue jeans and a bright yellow “Zuma Beach Volleyball League” tee-shirt and was apparently not watching the game. Nor was he interested in the fact that a baseball was screaming toward his head with alarming velocity. He was turned away from home plate, in blatant disregard for one of the most basic rules in live baseball attendance—never turn your back on the ball— in the midst of a very serious shouting match with a photographer in a brightly-checkered sports coat, who was suddenly
on the ground with the rest.

The ball didn’t hit Jersey Wheeler, or any of those on the ground and although I didn’t know at the time that this man was Jersey Wheeler, the image of this madman, shouting at the photographer on the ground, six-pack dangling from his hand, stuck
in my mind as I watched the game and long afterward, simply because of how much it didn’t belong at the game. I had never seen anything like it at a baseball game, and never would again. For this reason alone, Jersey could have easily been someone I would never forget.

It was a cold, rainy night, not unlike those you read about in gothic romance novels or see in a cheap “B” horror film and I was driving my Subaru on a deserted country road, about six miles outside the town of Fairmont, West Virginia. The mountain road was slick and difficult to drive and my visibility was probably ten feet. The rain
just kept coming in dirty sheets that battered my windshield without mercy, causing their ineffective swiping to seem even more useless.

In retrospect, I was practically positive that I had filled my gas tank earlier in the week and could even remember throwing the carbon from the charge card into the glove-box. But regardless of what I thought I remembered, in the cruel, unfair way things tend to work out in these situations, my car began to chug and sputter and several minutes later, I was pulled along side the road, hazards flashing, most
definitely out of gas.

I glanced at the fuel gauge, which read way below empty and cursed under my breath and turned off the ignition. I listened to the rain coming down in sheets on my roof and considered my options. I could sit there until the weather let up; which could mean staying in my car until morning. Or, I could get out and hitch-hike, but not
having seen a single vehicle since downtown Fairmont, hitch-hiking seemed even sillier than sleeping in my car. The third alternative was to walk in the rain to the one lighted house I’d seen on a hill a half-mile or so back. Jeez, I thought. This is getting more like a cheap horror story every passing minute… I slid out of the car and tightened my collar and began to slosh my way down the road, listening to the cold rain beat on my head.

It seemed like hours, with my shoes filled with mud and the clothing hanging off my body like wet burlap, but finally I saw the house looming just ahead. After trudging down the muddy road, my head was numb and each drop sounded like a deep thunder in my
ears. As I approached the house, I realized that the pounding I was hearing was coming from a stereo system—a very loud stereo system. I recognized an old Paul McCartney song being played at earbleeding volume and I began to beat on the door, hoping that the Wings fan inside would hear me above the din. After several minutes,
the music stopped and I knocked again to make certain they heard me.

As the seconds crept by, I began to think it might be better to brace the mud and rain to sleep in my car. The door suddenly burst open and I was grabbed by the wet lapels and thrown to the ground. I was on my back, about to complain, when a very large handgun was thrust into my mouth. My eyes widened and I looked up to see the
smiling face of a wild-eyed madman man hovering above me. It would later come back to me in a rush of realization that it was the very same, obviously volatile man I had seen accosting a harmless photographer on the Saturday afternoon baseball game all those years ago.

“Okay Fuckhead,” he said, calmly and I noticed that his hand wasn’t even shaking as he pulled back the hammer on his grossly-oversized firearm. “I want to know why you’re harassing me and how many more you have outside.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I tried to say, with the bluedsteel tongue depressor resting against the back of my throat.

“Speak English, or I throw your bloody, headless corpse back out into the rain,” he said, rattling his piece against my teeth for emphasis. I pointed to the gun and peed a little bit in my drawers. He pulled the pistol out slowly, then placed the business end of the barrel against my forehead, neatly between the eyes. “If you don’t talk fast, I’m going to put this back into your mouth,” he said, sincerely. “I feel more comfortable when it’s in there…”

“My car ran out of gas, my arm is falling asleep and I may have wet myself,” I blurted.

“Alright, then,” he said, releasing the hammer gently with his thumb. “Good enough for me… Is it raining hard?”

“Yes,” I said carefully, not wanting to trigger another assault with a lousy weather report. “May I get up now?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, rising from my chest almost as an afterthought. “Let me get you some dry clothes and a cup of joe.”

“Thanks.” I got up slowly and tried to shake the feeling back into my arm. “What, were you going to shoot me?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Not with this anyway.” He pulled the trigger and a small flame came out of the end—just large enough to light a cigarette. He laughed uproariously—I chuckled nervously. Then, out of the blue, he pulled another revolver and blew a hole the size of a saucepan in his wall. The sound of the report rang in my ears. “I might kill you with this puppy, though!” He laughed with gusto again as I began to eye the door. The rain didn’t seem so bad now—in fact it sounded damned fine compared to further dealings with a man who didn’t mind shooting his own house.
“Howsabout that coffee,” he said, tossing his pistol onto the sofa nonchalantly. “Do you like Paul McCartney?”

“What?” I asked distractedly, as the blood finally began to flow back into my tingling arm. “Yeah, sure.”

A few minutes later, I sat on the sofa across from Jersey Wheeler with the rain continuing to pour down outside. We were drinking hot coffee spiked with bourbon and Jersey was trying to convince me that Paul McCartney was dead—had been since 1966.
“What about Band on the Run? Who did that?” I asked, citing the one album if McCartney’s that had been compared with his best work with the Beatles. I had warmed up enough with the bourbon to play devil’s advocate.

“Can’t you see,” he said, kicking an ottoman for emphasis. “It’s Billy Fucking Shears!”

“I don’t know…”

“For Chrissakes, it’s on the albums—the lyrics, the covers… Even Ringo would have figured it out eventually—if Lennon hadn’t let him in on it.” He slumped back into his chair—he had put another McCartney album on the turntable and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” drifted in and out of the conversation. Butterpie? The butter wouldn’t melt, so I put it in the pie…

“Now there’s two down…” His eyes lit up dramatically. “We’ve got to call Harrison—he’s bound to be next!” He reached for the phone. As he fumbled with the receiver, he looked at me with urgency. “What’s the area code for Los Angeles?”

“I think George owns a big place in England, doesn’t he?” I asked, momentarily caught up in his mission.

“I know that,” he said, throwing a Bic lighter at my elbow. “You don’t think I’m asshole enough to try to call George, do you?”

“Well, who then?”

He thought for a moment. “Billy Preston, that’s who.” He smiled, pleased with his brainstorm. “If anyone knows how to get ahold of Harrison, it’s Billy. Hell, he toured with the guy, you know, the fifth Beatle and all that…”

“What makes you think Billy Preston is going to have a listed
number?” I inquired.

“Jesus Christ,” he yelled, slamming the receiver into its cradle. “You are no fucking help… It’s not going to be under Billy Preston— it’s going to be William, or BILL.” He sat back, dejected. “What’s the use. He’ll never get to George in time.”

There was a long silence that probably could have gone on for days. “Do you think you could give me a ride down to my car?” I asked gently. “It’s just a ways down the road.”

“What do you do for a living, Don?” he asked, quietly. I didn’t even tell him my name wasn’t Don—nor did I particularly mind the fact that he had called me Don—but all of the sudden I felt a darkness settle over the room that had nothing to do with the weather. I sensed that robbery, murder, or quite possibly something worse might loom on my horizon and I was, for all intents and purposes, helpless to do anything about it.

“I’m a writer,” I began. “For a comedy show on a cable network.” I saw Jersey Wheeler’s face go blank, as if in thought, then suddenly light up like a carnival midway. He pounced over the coffee table and grabbed my shirtfront, latching onto a fistful of chest hairs in the process, and threw me from the sofa onto the hardwood floor, just scant inches from the softness of the Persian rug under the table.

Apparently, this was one of his favorite moves and I was becoming quite familiar with the position. Only this time it wasn’t a pistol pointed inches from my nose, it was Jersey Wheeler’s own face, eyes crystal clear—if slightly crazed—and breath that smelled of the spiked coffee and Marlboros. “You write comedy.” His eyes dared around the room. “For a comedy show.”

“Yes,” I said. I could feel rivulets of sweat running down my temples. I imagined that there was an outside chance that it was the coffee making me perspire.

“There are several objects within my reach,” he looked down at me with the utmost of sincerity. “Very large, heavy objects.” I squirmed beneath him—he raised a finger. “Don’t, okay?” He asked softly. I stopped. He lowered his face very close to mine and spoke almost in a whisper. “Now… Do you expect me to believe that’s what
you do?”

“Yes,” I repeated, at a total loss for any other answer.

“Really.” He loosened his grip and half-raised to a semi-squatting position, eyes surveying the windows. He returned his gaze to me and again raised his finger, which I noticed had a tattoo on it. “Now, if you’re lying and there’s anyone out there, I’ll use any one of these large, heavy items to beat you senseless… Then I’ll shoot you and throw your carcass outside—just to make a point,” he added, removing himself from my supine body, which was beginning to ache—needlessly, I thought.

“What are you talking about?” My voice verged on a whine, but I did not want to incite him further—it was the best I could do. “I’ll assume you really don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, picking up a bowling pin from an end table next to the fireplace. “This? Just under four pounds,” he offered, showing me the pin. “I’m
going to pretend that you write comedy for a cable show.” He shifted the pin from hand to hand. “That you’re not from the fucking committee and that you’re not here to harass me.”

“Alright,” I said, nodding to the rhythm of the pin floating from hand to hand. I looked at his face. “Fair enough…What committee?”

Wheeler threw the pin violently through his living room window and pointed after it. “The one that’s out there, spying on me, harassing me. Trying to get me to give up my land.” He glanced at the rain that was beginning to wet his drapes. “It really is raining like a bastard, isn’t it?”

The music had stopped, the needle ricocheting off the label. He moved to the stereo system and lifted the arm of the turntable.“Are you sick of fucking McCartney music, or what?” I shrugged. He replaced the album in its sleeve and began to search through his collection for another. “I own two hundred acres,” he gestured, his
back to me, one arm waving a large circle in the air while the other sifted through the wall of vinyl. “Coal mining used to be this town. When the coal mines shut down, so did the town. Period. Drive downtown—nothing.” He pulled a record out and put it on the turntable. It crackled and popped and finally Derek and the Dominoes filled the air. “There’s a couple of shopping malls outside of town and some hotshot real estate folks built some subdivisions a few years back—which they still own, by the way—but nothing has happened in this town for years. So life goes on and time goes by and the land is available dirt-cheap. Along comes me—Jersey Wheeler—who buys
up two hundred acres of useless, rocky Blue-Ridge Mountain land… Now you’d think that these fine folk would be grateful to me for doing it.” He paused to play air-guitar with “I Walked Away”.

What kind of name is Jersey Wheeler, I thought—not normal. But, then again, Jersey Wheeler was no poster child for normalcy. “Why did you buy the land if it was useless?” I asked, pouring more bourbon into my now-empty coffee cup.

His fingers stopped moving, his eyes burned into mine and he said two words: “Grass carp.”

I drank the bourbon,and as Eric Clapton wound his tortured way through “Bell Bottom Blues”, Jersey Wheeler explained to me how he was going to terrace the mountainous terrain and scoop out shallow ponds with enough room between them to maneuver farm
machinery. This was the basis of “the farm”. Technically known as “triploid white amurs”, the fish were commonly called “grass carp”. He would breed the standard diploid fish, then by chromosome splitting from diploid to triploid, effectively de-sex the offspring. The resulting strain would be extremely large (averaging four feet), longliving and incapable of breeding. Their entire reason for being—their
sole purpose would be to eat—algae—and tons of it. The machinery would be used to hurl grain into the shallow ponds for feeding. There was a fortune to be made supplying golf courses, parks and state irrigation systems with schools of the mighty neutered bottom-feeders. Although they were illegal now, according to Jersey Wheeler, many places imported variations of the triploids at exorbitant black-market
rates. Supposedly, legislation was being processed that would legalize the fish, opening the market for enterprising individuals such as Jersey Wheeler.

“Come here, Ted,” Jersey said, picking up the bottle of bourbon. “I’ve got something I want to show you.” He turned sharply and walked toward the front door. I hesitated—he opened the door.

“Come on,” he said, beckoning me with the half-empty bottle. I grabbed my wet coat and put it on as Jersey walked into the downpour, which showed no signs of letting up, screaming the lyrics to “Layla” into the night. I followed him into the darkness and we walked around the corner of the house. A storm cellar door was unlocked and Jersey heaved it open and walked down the stairs. It was pitch-black until he flipped a switch and several long banks of fluorescent lights flickered
into life and lit up what could only be described as a concrete bunker. He took a .357 Magnum off of a shelf by the door.

“What’s that for?” I asked, looking at the cannon.

“Shhh.” He held his tattooed finger up. “The light usually freaks them our for a minute.”

My eyes darted nervously around the cellar and I saw what the carp-farmer was already sighting in. A huge rat—the size of a small dog, large cat, or medium sized sloth. The beady-eyed, long-snoutedcreature stared at us, as if smiling defiantly, daring us to enter his kingdom. But not for long—the blast shook my head as it
reverberated around the concrete walls and ceiling. “Bingo,” Jersey Wheeler said. The rat had vaporized into a pool of furry, multi-colored semi-fluid. “Ugly little fuckers, aren’t they? No fear whatsoever…”

The floor of the cellar was dirt, well-traveled and packed solid. Jersey led me to another door, this one metal, at the far side of the cellar. He turned to me, smiling with anticipation as he pulled open the thick steel door and a waft of cold, dry air hit my wet body, causing me to shiver. “Climate controlled,” Jersey said, flipping a light switch as he led the way. “No rats in here.”

The room could only be described as a huge vault, concrete top to bottom, floor to ceiling. Crates and boxes lined the walls and lighted display cases held court in the center of the room. I approached a display case and peered inside. It was a baseball jersey, number seven, in the familiar pinstripes of the New York Yankee
uniform. “The Mick,” Jersey said, proudly. “Mickey Mantle. The Yanks retired his number after he left the game—’69, I think. But this…” He tapped the case lightly and winked at me. “This is from the ’51 world series, October the fourth. The Mick got caught up in an outfield drain and ripped up his knee. In this uni!”

I gazed at the thick cotton jersey and found myself getting chills. It could have been the cold air, but standing there, next to the uniform in the vault, seeing the obvious pride and awe on Jersey Wheeler’s face led to more gooseflesh than did the temperature. "He was never the same... Who knows how good the kid coulda been?"

“How much is it worth?” I asked, still staring at the young Mantle’s jersey. “It’s not the money,” Jersey walked to another lighted case. “Look at this.”

I walked to the next case. It was a bat and a glove—the old type of fielder’s glove that looked like swollen dwarf-fingers embalmed in leather. “The Babe.” Again the shivers. The bat was weathered and cracked, the glove shrunken from decades of disuse. Babe Ruth. The Sultan of Swat had held the bat in his hands and with it had knocked leather over Yankee Stadium’s left-field wall. The Babe. “You can’t place a dollar amount on something like this.” Jersey sat down on a crate. “This is history. Babe Fucking Ruth! The Bambino! Of course, no one rates any higher in my book than Mutt’s boy Mickey Mantle, but a bat and a glove? That’s a coup."

I nodded. “Where did you get this stuff?”

Jersey stood, pointing to another row of cases. “DiMaggio’s spikes, an auction, Mick’s jersey, the black market. Musial’s bat, family. You can get anything if you offer enough money. But money is not the point. It’s the history.” He pulled from the bottle. “Mick’s uni, Joe’s spikes—it makes your nads crawl or you’re not American. I probably paid a lot more for this stuff than it’s really worth. They can
smell me coming. Once I see something I want, I just go blank—a trance. Shit, they could ask a million bucks and I’d just write a check. I could send someone to do it, but it’s not the same. Seeing this stuff for the first time is like sex. Your heart races, you sweat, you feel faint… Lou Gehrig’s hat… “ He winked. “That’s better than
pussy…” Jersey sat on his crate smiling, obviously in heaven on earth.

“What’s in the crates?” I asked, glancing at a Yogi Berra
catcher’s mask.

“Cards. Thousands of them. They’re in chronological, alphabetical order, the important ones autographed. When this room is eventually finished, I’ll pull the appropriate cards and put them in the appropriate case. You know, Willy Mays’ card in the case with his hat, that kind of thing.”

“This is amazing—how much money have you spent on all this?”
“The climate control alone is obscene. I have back-up generators, the room is sealed, all that. Then the actual artifacts? Probably six mil.”

“Six million dollars?” I was dumbfounded.

“If the committee knew about this room, I’m sure they’d shit. They think I’m raping the land. If they saw all this high-tech bullshit, they’d really come unglued.” Jersey toyed with the magnum in his hand. “They just don’t like me around here. They don’t trust me. It was fine when I was buying all their shitty land, but when they found out Ol’ Jersey was going to be fucking around with genetics, mashing things around to create giant sexless, albino, algae-eating triploids, they shit their pants and formed committees. They spy on me, just to intimidate me… Fuck ‘em.” Jersey took another swig, passed the bottle to me. “Just fuck ‘em, you know,” he said, turning toward the wall of crates to look at a label. “Grover Cleveland Alexander had a nephew or grandson or something that lives in Morgantown. Him and
Don Knotts—Barney Fife is from Morgantown, too…”

“Really,” I said, vaguely recalling that Grover Cleveland Alexander was a pitcher—way back when. And of course, everyone knew Barney Fife.

“Yeah,” Jersey replied, turning to face me. “I used to shoot pool with him. He’s got one of Grover’s gloves and a baseball he says Grover beaned Ty Cobb with. I offered him two hundred thousand for the pair, sight unseen, but no dice.”

“Really,” I said, feeling redundant.

“You should meet him—he’s funnier than hell.”

“Maybe someday, if I’m in Morgantown.”

Jersey got up and walked to the steel door. “Let’s go.” He exited, turning off the light. I took one last look at Jersey Wheeler’s mini-shrine. Mantle’s jersey took on an eerie glow in the dim light of the outer basement, where the smell of gunpowder still hung in the air. I walked out and Jersey shut the door behind me and led the way into the rain, placing the magnum on the shelf as we left.

If anything, it was raining harder than before. I tugged my coat up around my neck as Jersey led me away from the house. “The garage is this way,” he shouted back, sloshing through the mud.

“What’s in the garage?” I asked. I really didn’t want to make the trip—especially if it was to see a vat full of sexless grass carp.

“My car, you fucking simpleton,” Jersey shouted as he picked up the pace. I sped up, splashing harder through the puddles. Perhaps he was finally going to take me back to my car—it was a long shot, but I followed with renewed enthusiasm in my steps. Jersey swung the door open and we went in. The garage roof leaked horribly and everything was soaking wet. Piles of newspapers, a couple of lawnmowers, a stack of paint cans and other assorted debris all sat in pools of water, the newspapers ready to resume mildewing at the first sign of warming sunshine. Amidst the clutter, I
saw a primer-gray 1974 Nova four-door that had seen better days. As Jersey rooted around in the debris for a gas can, I looked in the car. It had no back seat—probably lost in some wild-eyed escapade years ago. The entire back seat area was littered with empty beer cans and fast-food wrappers. A high-living millionaire was
Jersey Wheeler. “Bingo,” he said, fishing a gallon can from behind a steel shelving unit. Minutes later, we were in Jersey’s Nova, idling in the garage as the car warmed and Jersey searched the radio for a rock and roll station. Even with the garage door open, the fumes were beginning to make me sick when he finally found “Sweet Home Alabama”, turned up the volume and slipped the car into reverse. As
we backed out of the garage, I started to tell him where my car was.

“First things first. Let’s get you some gas,” he said, raising a tattooed finger in the air. “Johnny Phelps runs the Sunoco on the other side of Barrackville. He’ll open up for us. He’s the only one I know.” Jersey settled back into the seat, a new mission at hand. It began to dawn on me that Jersey went from one crisis, one crusade to the next.

The rest was irrelevant.

“Is it far?” I asked.

“What, you don’t like the company?” Jersey roared, as if it were the most ludicrous thing he could ever say. We drove without talking for two miles, letting the sounds of the rock and roll station fill the space. Visibility was horrible with rain beating on the windshield and what was left of the Nova’s windshield wiper blades were dragging behind the metal arms, which continued to scrape away at the glass like some time-challenged metronome. That of course didn’t keep Jersey Wheeler from putting the machine through its tired paces down the slick, winding country road. ZZ Top was tearing their way through a chainsaw-guitar rocker as Jersey fired up the remnants of a joint that was stored in the ashtray. He offered it to me and while I felt as a good God-fearing passenger that taking my eyes off the road for even the briefest of moments would surely send us careening off the side of the mountain that rose to our left, the nerve-calming smell off the sweet ganja was too tempting at this point to resist. I reached for the roach.

Why on God’s earth a five-hundred pound elk with a full rack would be bounding across a winding mountain road in a torrential rain storm was beyond me—and Jersey Wheeler, concentrating on handing me the reefer with a minimum of fuss was certainly in no position to anticipate and react to such an occurrence. The elk stopped bounding long enough to have its legs cut from under it at 45m.p.h. by the Nova, sending it airborne into the windshield, its antlers shattering the safety glass and coming to rest inches from my face.

Jersey’s Nova slued sideways toward the mountain, one headlight broken out, the other shooting hopelessly skyward. “Fuck,” Jersey muttered, once the car had gently nudged the very rocks from which the Kamikaze elk had bounded. I opened my door and slipped out of the car, easing my head past the antlers, trying with all I had to
avoid contact with the animal. Jersey slid over and pushed the elk’s head out of the way, the limp neck bobbing the head at his touch. Once out of the car, I threw up, my stomach set off by the combination of the bourbon and the smell of the dead, wet elk.

“That’s not very manly,” Jersey said, standing clear of me as I wretched in the downpour. “When you’re done with all that, give me a hand with the bastard.”

I straightened up, avoiding eye contact with the elk and I saw Jersey pulling a coil of rope from the trunk. “What are you going to do,” I asked, suddenly very tired and keenly aware of every raindrop that struck me. “Hang it?”

“We’re going to tie him down on the hood and drive back to the house.” He looked at me, smiling, rain running off his nose. “No use wasting meat.”

I had never smelled a wet elk, live or dead and after ten minutes of wrestling with the carcass of the beast in the rain, I was certain I would never forget the stench, especially if I chose to keep this jacket. It had to be the rain, I suggested to Jersey, that made the animal smell so God-awful. The rain and the fact that it was dead.

“No,” Jersey said, dashing my theory. “Livestock always smells, live or dead, rain or no rain. And this fellow here is no exception.” Jersey cinched a final loop around an antler and tied off the end to the front bumper. “Now you can concoct any hairbrained theory that you want about smell and all, but the fact of the matter is that this fucker will be 300 pounds of elk-burger in a couple of days and that’s all that really matters, now isn’t it?” He slapped the elk on the flank and walked
toward the passenger side door. “Now, let’s roll.”

Jersey got in and slid to the driver’s side and I followed. The car started reluctantly and Jersey scraped it along the mountain for a hundred yards or so and finally eased the crippled machine onto the pavement. We got up to twenty miles an hour, with the rain glancing off the elk, before it began to shimmy horribly, its Jack Elam headlight bobbing like a spastic searchlight. Jersey shook his head.
“It’s just that kind of night,” he said, wiping the water from his face. I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but I had a good idea. As the elk bounced around on the hood, I tried to remember just where in the hell I was going before this whole adventure began. Jersey was very quite and I figured he was thinking, too—God only knew what— of one of Mickey Mantle’s tape-measure home runs, or perhaps elk-skinning.

“I saw you on TV once,” I heard myself say. I suddenly realized why this man—this lunatic—had seemed familiar to me. That long-ago Saturday afternoon watching the Reds and the man in the yellow Zuma volleyball tee-shirt clicked in my mind, and I knew that it had been Jersey Wheeler.

“Oh yeah?” Jersey said, the rain pouring through the shattered windshield. “What was I doing?”

“You were hanging out with the photographers at a Red’s game. A foul ball almost hit you, but you were too busy yelling at a photographer to notice.”

“Oh.” Jersey was solemn. “You know, I love baseball. If I had done things differently twenty, thirty years ago…”

I realized how ludicrous it was for us to be having a serious conversation while driving in the rain with no windshield in a crippled car with five hundred pounds of dead elk straddling the hood. But it didn’t seem that bad. In fact, it seemed the next logical progression, given our relationship, of course. “What did you do when you were younger—did you play ball?”

“Me? Hell no, I was too busy making money.” Jersey laughed and turned to look at me, the rain pouring through the windshield beginning to ease up. “I patented an idea—several ideas on self-contained, water-cooled integrated circuits for electronics use.”

“Yeah?” I wiped the water away from my face with a soaked sleeve. It smelled of elk.
“I came to an agreement with a Japanese company to let them manufacture and distribute for a percentage of the profits and they mail me checks.” He smiled. “Big ones.” I could see Jersey’s house, with the living room lights on, much as I had seen it when I passed it hours before, a beacon in the storm. “Once I got that out of the way, I could concentrate on doing things I like. Like baseball. And farms to
cultivate huge algae-eating carp.”

“What are you going to do about the ‘committee’?” I asked, now wondering if this Jersey Wheeler character was not so crazy after all.

“I don’t know.” Jersey pulled into his driveway and as if on cue, the car stalled out as we pulled into the garage, elk intact. “If they end up voting me out, in that queer, inbred way committees work, I may just have to give up and try somewhere else.”

Jersey’s door wouldn’t open, so we both got out on the passenger side. I helped him drag the elk off the hood and Jersey tossed the rope over a rafter and tied the end around the elk’s back legs. Then we hoisted it into the air and Jersey secured the line. The elk swayed gently and Jersey produced a large hunting knife from the trunk of the car. “But I so love this part of the country,” he said, poising the knife at the elk’s throat. “Where else could you poach an elk of this size and get away with it?” Then, Jersey turned and went to work, bleeding the elk.

The rain had stopped and I walked out of the garage. The sun was beginning to come up. I began the walk through the mud to my car. That was the last time I ever saw Jersey Wheeler—full of purpose, huddled over five hundred pounds of swinging elk-burger, singing a Badfinger tune.

I moved from Fairmont to Phoenix to work for another television station shortly after I recovered from the nine-month chest cold I had gotten after my night with Jersey Wheeler. Though I never had contact with him again, when watching a ballgame, I always look in the stands and in the dugouts—even the area where the
photographers are—hoping to see him, a six-pack dangling from his hand, not looking for trouble, but fully expecting it to rear its ugly head.

Word has it that the Arizona state legislature is passing a law making it legal to import grass carp to curb the algae in our irrigation canals. Shipment of the first 30,000 non-breeding triploids is expected to be imported from a farm in the Northern panhandle of West Virginia.

2 comments:

  1. Jerry, that was great. I enjoyed it a lot. I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next. Great characters. Thanks for sharing. Monty

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