0 the clear moment, when from the mouth
A word flies, current immediately
Among friends; or when a loving gift astounds
As the identical wish nearest the heart;
Or when a stone, volleyed in sudden danger,
Strikes the rabid beast full on the snout!
-Robert Graves, “Fragment of a Lost Poem”
Like everybody else, I’ve told my favorite sports stories so many times I almost believe them myself. For instance:
When I was twelve years old (stop me if you’ve heard this), Happy Chandler gave me an autographed baseball. I once rode on an elevator with Jim Thorpe. I know a guy who knows a guy whose father once stood next to Lou Gehrig at a urinal in Yankee Stadium. I saw Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell pitch a no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds in 1947, and Tom Seaver duplicate the feat in the next Reds game I attended—thirty-one years later. Gay Brewer., Jr., the golfer, once bird-dogged my girlfriend. My friend Gurney Norman claims to have tossed a ping-pong ball into a Dixie Cup from twenty feet away. (I believe him, of course—but hey, what are friends for?) Waite Hoyt once let my uncle buy him a drink. In college, I was employed as a “tutor” by my university’s athletic department, in which capacity I took, by correspondence, an entire sophomore English literature survey course for a first-string All-American tackle.
(“Now don’t get me no A,” my protege cautioned, the night before I was to take the final for him. “Get me about a C+, that’d be about right.” It was a line I would put to use twenty-five years later in my one and only novel, The Natural Man, still available at fine booksellers everywhere.)
Well, I could go on, but modesty forefends; my record in Vicarious Athletics speaks for itself.
Yet there were a few times when I actually got into the fray in person, in the quest after that elusive Perfect Moment. Like the time I ran fourteen balls in a game of straight pool (and had a straight-in shot at the fifteen—and scratched). Or the time I won a dollar and thirty-five cents in half an hour pitching pennies on the courthouse steps (and lost it all back in the next twenty minutes).
Or the time twelve guys on our high school basketball team came down with the flu, and I was abruptly—not to say precipitously—elevated from second-string JayVee to the furthermost end of the varsity bench, and suddenly found myself, deep in the third quarter, not only in the game but endeavoring to guard the great Cliff Hagan, then of Owensboro High, later of the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the St. Louis Hawks. On the first play he broke for the basket and went twinkle-toeing up my chest like he was Fred Astaire and I was the Stairway to the Stars.
Hagan—Mr. Hagan—accumulated eleven points during my two-minute tenure, mostly on shots launched from some vantage point afforded him by my reclining anatomy. If there were a statistic called “percentage of defensive assists,” I’d have set some kind of record.
Still, every mutt has his Moment, and mine was coming up.
By the spring of 1950, when I was a junior at Maysville High and my glory days on the hardwood were but a distant memory (“Mac,” our estimable Coach Jones had said, drawing me aside one day after practice, “Mac, you’re a good, hard-working boy, but son, your hands are small, and I just don’t believe you’ve got the equipment to make this team”), I had long since limited my athletic exertions to the rigorous pursuit of female companionship.
In other words, I was spending a disproportionate amount of time mooning about the house and grounds of a certain Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Stonebreaker, who had four beautiful daughters still at home. Alas, I was but one of many, a restive, milling herd of rampant teen-aged billygoats strutting our dubious stuff before the less-than-awestruck Miss Stonebreakers. On Saturday afternoons (when Mr. Stonebreaker usually beat a strategic withdrawal to his euchre game at the Moose Lodge, while Mrs. Stonebreaker did her grocery shopping), the testosterone level in Stonebreaker Hall could have peeled the wallpaper.
For these occasions, we trotted out all our highly developed social skills—which is to say we maligned and demeaned and bullied and belittled one another mercilessly, in the hope of raising our own stature in the eyes of the four (largely indifferent) fascinators; we cut up and showed off like drunken sailors, and talked as indelicately as we dared, for the edification of that beguiling audience.
Such was the scenario on that memorable Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1950, the day of my Personal Best Great Moment:
Mr. S. is at his euchre, Mrs. S. is out shopping, and the house fairly teems with post-pubescent boys of every size and description, from eighth-graders vying for the attentions of Gracie, the youngest Stonebreaker, to a couple of pipe-puffing college freshmen home for the weekend expressly to pay court to Mary Margaret, the eldest, who graduated from high school last year and now has an office job at the cotton mill. Once again, the objects of our affection have reduced us all—even the college guys—to the developmental level of the eighth-graders, who themselves are behaving like fifth-graders. Naturally, there have already transpired numerous episodes of pantsing, not to mention various hotfoots, noogies, and wedgies; and the atmosphere is redolent of bathroom humor so sophisticated that it has left the sisters Stonebreaker fairly gasping with (let us hope) admiration.
I’m there too, of course, but for once I’ve held myself aloof from these adolescent proceedings, having somehow cornered Bernice, who is to my mind the fairest Stonebreaker of them all, over by the piano, where I and my Lucky Strike are demonstrating my prowess at French-inhaling, blowing smoke rings, and—like Tony Curtis on the cover of the paperback of The Amboy Dukes (“A Novel of Wayward Youth in Brooklyn! Now a Thrilling Motion Picture!”)—making suave conversation while the Lucky is parked roguishly in the corner of my mouth. I have also lately cultivated, in the wake of my departure from the uniformly crew-cut Bulldog squad, a prodigious Wildroot-lubricated pompadour, complete with a lank Tony Curtis forelock that dangles ornamentally over my right eye; and I’m sporting my brand-new oh-so-cool two-tone jacket with the collar turned up—just like Tony’s!
(“How come you’ve got your collar turned up that way, Eddie?” Bernice has just interrupted my suave conversation to inquire. “It’s not a bit cold in here!”)
And now into this tranquil domestic circle swagger the last two guys in all of Christendom whom the rest of us—the males, I mean—want to see, namely the dread Speedy Little Guards (so-called in the local press), a brace of Bobbys—let’s call them Bobby One and Bobby Two—, indispensable Bulldog mainstays, One a razzle-dazzle ball-handler, Two a nonpareil set-shot artist, both of them brash, bandy-legged, and, in the unanimous opinion of the Stonebreaker girls, devastatingly cute.
Bernice quickly escapes the narrow confines of our tete-a-tete and joins her sisters, who are gathered ’round the Bobbys to admire their new Bulldog letter-sweaters, acquired just last night at the annual awards banquet. (How come they’re wearing sweaters? I hear myself grumbling inwardly. It’s not a bit cold in here!) Then we all troop dutifully outside to see Bobby Two’s new short—actually his mother’s new short, a dumpy, frumpy 1950 Nash Rambler whose contours, come to think of it, are not unlike those of Mrs. Two herself.
Still, the Nash is profoundly snazzier than the scuffed penny-loafers which at present constitute my own principle means of locomotion, and I am positively viridescent with envy. And this condition is further aggravated by my growing certainty that if Bobby Two has his way, he and Bernice will be snuggling up in that goddamn Rambler at the RiverView Drive-in Theater tonight.
Once we’re all back inside the house, the two Bobbys, along with Marcella, the second-eldest sister, and (sigh) Bernice, promptly disappear into the kitchen, from whence soon begin to issue various muffled giggles, sniggers, chortles, titters, and similar sounds of suppressed merriment. Meanwhile, the eighth graders are entertaining Gracie with a tiny-tuba ensemble of rude armpit noises as the pipe-puffers regale Mary Margaret with BMOC tales (featuring, of course, themselves), leaving the rest of us Lotharios to loll about the living room shooting pocket-pool while we feign indifference to the jolly goings-on behind the kitchen door.
After ten or fifteen minutes the merrymakers emerge, the girls still all a-giggle behind their hands, the Bobbys all a-smirk. Each Bobby is carrying, inexplicably, an egg.
“Okay,” Bobby One announces, stepping to the center of the room, “now let’s see which one can bust his egg on the othern’s head!” With that, he and Bobby Two begin comically bouncing around the room on their toes like sparring spermweights until, after a brief and thoroughly unpersuasive flurry of psuedo-fisticuffs, Bobby One, egg in hand, smacks Bobby Two on the noggin and—how could I have been so surprised by this?—mirabile dictu, the egg’s not loaded, there’s nothing in it. The empty shell shatters harmlessly on Bobby Two’s crew-cut pate.
Of course the Bobbys—being Bobbys—act like this is the greatest joke since the chicken crossed the road. There wasn’t nothing to it, they aver, clapping each other on the back in the throes of their hilarity; we just punched little pinholes in them eggs and blowed the insides out.
And right there is where I make the dumbest move of my young life.
“Let’s see that one,” I hear myself saying, unaccountably, to Bobby Two, whose egg—whose eggshell—is still intact. “Lemme take a look at it.” To this day, I don’t know what in the world I was thinking of.
“You wanna see the egg?” says Bobby One. “Hey Bob-o, Clammerham wants to see the egg!”
Bobby Two is grinning, and there is a gleam in his eye that should have given me pause. Could that be a corresponding gleam in the eye of Bernice, who is standing just behind him? Why do I feel like I’m in a play, and everybody knows the script but me?
“Sure, Hammerclam,” says Bobby Two, putting his hands behind his back. “Which hand?”
Christ, I’m thinking, it’s only an eggshell. But hey, I got my forelock, got my Lucky hangin’ on my lip, I’m cool. So I play along.
“Uh, the left?”
“Nope,” he says, showing me his left hand, in which there is, of course, nothing at all. Meanwhile his right hand—in which there is, of course, not an eggshell but an egg, in all its fullness—is describing a high, sweeping arc from behind his back to the top of my head, where it arrives with a disgusting splat, much to the disadvantage of my pompadour.
“Sorry,” says Bobby Two, wiping his palm on my Tony Curtis lapel, “wrong hand.”
So there I stand in the Stonebreaker living room with a coiffeur nicely dressed out in egg yolk, a viscous thread of egg-white trailing, like a sneeze gone terribly wrong, from my forelock to my Lucky Strike, and all about me a tumult of eighth-graders rolling on the floor, college boys roaring, Stonebreaker girls hugging themselves in their mirth, Bobbys pounding each other on the back to the point of bodily injury. My dignity, I fear, has been seriously compromised. Time to regroup.
To which purpose I slink off to the kitchen, where I stick my sodden head under the faucet in the sink and shampoo my hair as best I can with dishwashing liquid, dry it with Mrs. Stonebreaker’s dishtowel, and sponge off my jacket with her dishrag. Then I comb my hair; the egg-yolk residue is beginning to set up, which actually helps a little in the reconstruction of my pompadour. Finally, I go to the refrigerator and help myself to two more of Mrs. Stonebreaker’s eggs. Thus armed, I return to the scene of Clamhammer’s Humiliation.
In the living room, things have sorted themselves out predictably, in accordance with the New Social Order: The armpit ensemble has resumed serenading Gracie, and the college stuffed-shirts, solemn as owls, are once again puffing industriously away on their calabashes, throwing up a smoke screen around Mary Margaret as dense—and certainly as aromatic—as an enchantment. But now Bobby One is cozying up to Marcella on the sofa, and Bernice, that Jezebel, has joined Bobby Two over by the piano—in our corner!
Such is the sordid scene that Clamhammer the Redeemer bursts upon, with blood in his eye and vengeance on his mind.
“Awright, you sorry bastids,” I thunder—yes! I actually thundered!—, brandishing an egg at first one Bobby, then the other, “now I would hate to have to throw this right here in Mrs. Stonebreaker’s living room, but I’ve got one of these apiece for you two sonsabitches, and if you’re not outta here by the time I count to three, you’re definitely gonna get egged! One!”
The Bobbys exchange stricken glances, and I know that I am terrible in my wrath.
Now Bobby One half-rises from the sofa, while the craven Bobby Two endeavors to shield himself behind Bernice.
“Three!” I cry, and with that the Bobbys break simultaneously for the doorway into the front hall, and I am in hot pursuit, my throwing arm cocked at the ready. But not for nothing do their admirers call them the Speedy Little Guards, for by the time I make the hall, they are scrambling out the front door. And the truth is that, despite my threat, I am not quite willing to throw an egg within these sacred premises, owing to the certainty that Mrs. Stonebreaker would forthwith banish me from the temple forever and ever, world without end.
So I hold my fire, and in another instant I’m on the front stoop and the Bobbys are already legging it across the street toward where the Rambler awaits them. I reach the curb just as Bobby Two arrives at the Rambler’s driver’s-side door, and I have a clear shot at him, a perfect target inasmuch as, even if I miss, I’ll still hit his mommy’s car. Then, just as I’m going into my windup, what suddenly looms up between us but a city bus, lumbering along as huge and pokey as a steamship. And when the bus is out of the way at last, I see that Bobby Two is at the Rambler’s wheel, revving up, and his door is closed. Bobby One is just opening the passenger-side door; I can see his head above the roof of the car, so I uncork a desperation throw at it, not a bad throw, actually, except that he sees it coming and ducks into the car as the egg sails over his head and splatters abortively against a telephone pole. Then Bobby Two pops the clutch, and the Rambler scratches off more spiritedly than I would’ve dreamed it could, while I stand there on the curb shaking my fist after them, a masterful study in futility.
But wait, what’s this I see! Down at the far end of the block, the Rambler is hanging a U-ey! Can it be that they’re actually going to come back past me? Yes they are; the Rambler has wallowed through its turn, and is headed back in my direction. Maybe they’ve forgotten that I still have an egg in my arsenal—and this time, I am vowing grimly as I palm my egg, I won’t miss.
As the Rambler rolls slowly past, Bobby One has his thumbs in his ears, and is making donkey faces at me behind the passenger-side window. I draw a bead on his ugly mug and cut loose a vicious Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell sidearm bullet that I know even as it leaves my hand is a wild pitch, and that it will miss the strike zone by half a yard.
Now there are those who will maintain that an egg is, after all, only an egg, a stupid, insensate, ovoid article of no cognitive power whatsoever unless and until it somehow gets a chicken in it—itself a species not conspicuous for its intellect. But that does not describe this egg. For this is my egg, friends, as surely as if I’d laid it myself, and this egg is smarter, even, than its proud parent, it has a mind of its own and knows exactly where it wants to go. And this egg of mine has eyes, dear hearts, and as it spins off my fingertips it sees what I have not seen, which is that although Bobby One has his window snugly closed, his wind-wing—that little triangular vent that all cars used to have, back in the days when car-makers were smarter than, say, chickens—his wind-wing is … wide open!
And this little egg of mine finds that tiny opening with all its eyes, and it flies as true as Cupid’s arrow straight through the vent and explodes in a bright golden sunburst all over the interior of Bobby Two’s mommy’s brand new short, all over those accursed Bobbys and their goddamn letter-sweaters! Thus have I struck the rabid beast full on the snout!
Luck? You dare call it luck? Was it luck that directed Gurney’s ping-pong ball into that Dixie Cup? No indeed. Luck, I think, is synonymous with money; it’s strictly a business proposition, wherein good luck produces a payoff, bad luck a pay-out. Nor, of course, was it skill; neither I nor Gurney could duplicate our feats in a thousand thousand years. No, this was destiny, pure and simple; we had, each of us, a blind date with Immortality. Did Cliff Hagan ever toss a ping-pong ball into a Dixie Cup at twenty feet? Did Ewell the Whip ever fling an egg through the wind-wing of a moving car?
And while I’m asking questions, I’ll ask these: Were the Stonebreaker girls all watching from the stoop when my egg burst like a de Kooning masterpiece inside the Rambler? Did they scream and squeal like bobby-soxers when this miracle of art and magic and athletic prowess transpired right before their very eyes? Did Bernice and I go to the movies that night—the sit-down movies, not the drive-in—, and did I, when I took her home afterwards, kiss her on the lips on that very stoop?
No, sports fans, I’m afraid not, I’m afraid not. But … 0 the clear moment!