December 22, 2015
Chief Noc-A-Homa and Princess Win-A-Lotta share a secluded bungalow on the wooded shores of Lake Allatoona, about an hour north of Atlanta. Neither of the two former human mascots, a royal Indian couple, has worked an Atlanta Braves home game since 1986—nearly thirty years ago. They were run off from their giant teepee that’d been situated in the outfield bleachers in the now-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after what began as a disagreement with team officials over the chief’s pay of sixty dollars per game. It wasn’t much to live on for a large city’s icon, even in 1980’s money. And the princess earned even less.
The pair didn’t belong anymore, of course, when they were evicted, but shit, they were married there, out by home plate, and threw out a ceremonial first pitch together right after the exchanging of vows to what sounded like war chants swelling toward them from the crowd. The chief and princess’s public marriage venue, the old stadium, is now a vast parking lot for the newer stadium, Turner Field, named for former Braves owner Ted Turner. When the team finally made its first World Series run in decades in 1991, the chief lobbied for his old job back, but the club declined him for unstated reasons.
On summer evenings all these years later, Noc-A-Homa listens to Braves radio broadcasts on an old AM/FM radio with a tall wire antenna protruding up to the sky. On the warmest nights, the chief drinks cool water straight from a green hose out on the front porch of his bungalow because he doesn’t feel like getting up from his porch swing and going into the house to run fresh water into a clean glass over ice cubes like most people do. He knows the attitude is wrong, but he doesn’t want to hear the sounds that kitchens make: the clanking of pots and pans, the ringing of timers and their echoes. He has begun to enjoy his relative solitude now and doesn’t want to get cornered in there by Win-A-Lotta either, wearing just her loincloth and have to talk about what groceries they may or may not need from BI-LO for the week. He’s able to avoid a lot of marital conflict this way. The chief hates extracting ice cubes from their trays, as well. It may sound like a small thing, but it bothers him, the act of fishing the cold cubes out, the way it feels on his fingernails.
About drinking cool water straight from the hose, Noc-A-Homa will sometimes say to the air, “It’s the Brett Butler method.” What he means by this is to suggest that drinking water straight from a hose may have been invented by former Braves outfielder Brett Butler in the early eighties, which is possible, though difficult to confirm. Do you know anyone who drank from the hose before the eighties? Maybe you did. Unlike baseball’s many statistical minutiae, there aren’t records for some things.
Back when he played, Butler was one of those players who always got his uniform pants dirty, even sliding headfirst into first base sometimes on bunt attempts or close plays on the infield. Butler was that kind of player, the kind you might be inclined to call working class, and the kind that if you heard drank cold water from a hose outside whenever he was thirsty, you’d believe it. In your mind you can almost see Butler’s face wrinkle up to scoff at the suggestion he might ought to use a Brita filter for his water. Noc-A-Homa approves of that particular Brett Butler mentality.
Butler, however, does not live on Allatoona. He lives out West somewhere now and travels half the year with the minor league team he manages. Butler is a survivor of a rare tonsil cancer and is a born-again Christian. He is “pro-life,” but who isn’t? Noc-A-Homa still considers Butler his favorite all-time Braves outfielder aside from the great Dale Murphy, who was unquestionably better. Another reason for his long fondness for Butler, aside from his hustle, had nothing to do with baseball. It was Butler’s feint physical resemblance to Jim Varney, the late actor who starred in all the Ernest movies and always wore a blue jean vest and an amusing smile.
Win-A-Lotta turned fifty recently but still looks forty. She is almost fifteen years the chief’s junior. She, unlike him, is a long way from beginning the transition into old age.
To say Win-A-Lotta is bored these days with the chief is a hellacious understatement. She can’t imagine being more bored than she is whenever he’s around, which is often. She hates the way he spends all his time outside the bungalow, fishing and hunting, and how on weekends he’s always off at the various outdoor expos, taking pictures with babies, dressed up as a Sioux with face paint but in Braves’ blue and red. It infuriates her.
Win-A-Lotta is white, though most people don’t know this. She tans well. Both of them still regularly don their mascot garb as though they never lost their gigs. You can usually find Win-A-Lotta tanning out on the dock near their home, at the chief’s insistence, in case they get that call again, back to the majors. She has charcoal black eyes and wears her dark hair long because years ago the team had told her it was best that she model herself after Pocahontas, which she does still in appearance and dress. The chief doesn’t have the physique Win-A-Lotta does, but he, at least, is an Indian. Or, as he only occasionally puts it, “a Native American,” from one of those smaller tribes up North, along the Great Lakes.
The chief took encouragement a couple years back when the Braves organization publicly contemplated re-introducing their old Screaming Indian logo for use on their batting practice caps. This type of thing happens from time to time. He reemerges in the press, usually along with much controversy over political correctness. Reporters leaf through their old contact books and find him. Was a renewed embrace of the chief’s persona to follow? Or were the baseball gods merely teasing him? He called up the team’s front office when he read about the controversy in his morning paper, but no one answered. Perhaps, when the time is right, he told himself, they’ll call him.
Noc-A-Homa’s all-time favorite Brave is far-and-away Dale Murphy. He has extolled endlessly the virtues of The Murph, the legendary Mormon slugger, to anyone who will listen. “Although he wasn’t born Mormon,” the chief will emphasize. The Murph won two MVP awards in the eighties but has struggled to receive due recognition in the years following his retirement from his commendable career. Writers gripe that on close inspection The Murph doesn’t actually possess Hall of Fame credentials, although he was, and has continued to be, a great ambassador of the game, they all say.
Win-A-Lotta’s favorite Brave, however, is still solidly Butler, despite the chief’s stubborn and statistically-correct insistence that Murphy was the far superior player of the two. The chief knows deep down that Win-A-Lotta’s preference might, however, be more sexual in nature. He confronted her about it one hot night after a home game, back when they were still living out their big-league dream in the old stadium’s teepee. He’d come home after partying with some friends and found a pair of sliding shorts under his pillow and some baseball pants with dirt stains all over them beside the mattress.
Upon seeing this evidence, the chief shouted out partially to Win-A-Lotta but partially to himself, as well: “How’d this happen?” But he made no direct accusations as the princess watched him with a look of frustration. The chief hadn’t wanted to have any possible dark truths confirmed, especially then and there with him being angry. Anyway, he couldn’t be sure of any of it. He pulled off his war bonnet and paced their shared tent, which a couple years earlier had been his bachelor pad. That night he walked the stadium’s unlit concourse by himself to clear his head, which worked. Maybe he’d imagined the whole thing.
He cared for his young bride, but in truth, he barely knew her. The princess had come to work with the Braves as their new marketing intern on her summer break from a college up north when the princess idea was cooked up. Their marriage had at first been intended to be only a publicity stunt. But she decided not to return to school that fall. No one would have guessed that all of these years later, for some reason, they’d still be together, married over thirty years.
Just a couple of weeks ago on Allatoona, the chief was sitting outside listening to the radio and had nearly dozed off with the Braves game being in a rain delay, when he heard the house phone ringing. He rushed inside where Win-A-Lotta was busy in the kitchen scrubbing a pan. He was too late.
“How could you just let it ring like that?” he asked his wife, and she shrugged the way she sometimes does.
The chief and princess’s time in Atlanta wasn’t much at the very end. Win-A-Lotta would tell you that. But their time away from their former city has left the chief especially remembering the good things: the lights, the stardom, the cheers when the Bravos would homer and he’d dance around the outside of his teepee for the fans. All the bad memories seem to diminish now as the years escape him. All of the losing streaks and the rightful bitterness caused by the low pay are nearly forgotten, too. He’s forgiven Butler as well, sort of, despite not truly believing his wife that nothing happened between them. What choice does he have?
When the Thrashers hockey team was re-located to Winnipeg a few years back, they changed their team name to the Jets. So Thrash, the six-foot-three brown thrasher on ice skates came up to Allatoona with his head tucked under a wing. He didn’t know the chief or the princess, but he’d heard about them and he was unemployed. He knew they would relate, even though they’d been well before his time.
Win-A-Lotta was lonely and wanted to spice up her and the chief’s marriage. So when Thrash, donning his now-vintage hockey uniform over his full-body bird suit, wound up living in his own bungalow next door, she started inviting the giant bird over most nights to spend time with the couple. That’s how it started anyway, and it’s still happening. She’ll cook and put on nice clothes. Thrash doesn’t say much. He can’t change the expression on his face in the suit he wears, but you can tell from something in the way he walks around that he’d thought himself too young to be forced into retirement, too.
Sometimes now when the chief hears the crack of the bat and the announcer’s home run call over the radio at home, he gets up and starts to dance even though he knows no one’s watching. And when the Braves are having a good year, he’ll keep going out to his porch at night to listen to games deep into October, wrapping himself up in a blanket when the team is playing the late-starting games out on the West Coast where the time zone isn’t kind to a man who’s getting old and it’s late enough where it gets nippy out along the lake.
Win-A-Lotta doesn’t even care if the team makes the playoffs or not. She won’t vocalize she wants them to lose, but her lack of commentary on the matter says it all. She doesn’t know all the players’ names on the current roster like she used to. She doesn’t keep up with the stats or the trades that go on anymore. She’s done with all that old fanaticism that she once took part in. For her, like for a lot of Atlanta fans, there were too many years in the nineties after the team turned good when it finished World Series runner-up seemingly every year. It gets hard to sustain excitement for a team like that, that will just tease you without end. She’s a mostly-good woman, the chief will concede, she just peaked young, even if physically she still remains mostly the same, against the odds.
After so many years together with the princess now, the chief knows it’s about impossible to get some things between two people to be perfect all the time. Even his billionaire former owner Turner and his ex-wife Jane Fonda had split up. There’s so much that can go wrong with one person, and when you add a second person to the mix, even more so. Even when you’re fortunate in the outside world, whoever you are, your inside world will find its way up to gnaw at you.
When the chief dreams of late he dreams vivid dreams. This used to not happen at all. All of the dreams seem to star his younger self. He has no idea what Win-A-Lotta dreams of. For the people of Georgia to just forget her? A spirit in one or both of them to snap awake to the pound of a cowhide drum? Or for the bird in the bungalow next door to unzip and shed itself of its feathers?
In one of the chief’s recent dreams, he and the princess were much younger than they are now and Win-A-Lotta was in an Atlanta hospital having just given birth to a son, even though in real life they have no children and have never wanted any. The birth had looked painful in the dream, as births usually do. But it was the part that happened after all of that that stuck with the chief the following morning. His wife had told him that she loved him. It had seemed as if she’d meant it and it were real and had always been that way. He still didn’t know what to make of it but wondered if something has been there all along deep down for both of them, under all their surface indifference for one another. He still wondered at the bathroom sink with a wet cloth pressed to the wrinkled face he saw in the mirror. The skin was his and was fine, but he wondered, should he now wipe away that baseball war paint?
GREGORY LEE SULLIVAN’S stories appear or are forthcoming in Permafrost, The Collagist, Barely South Review, Buffalo Almanack, New Mexico Review, and other literary journals. Before turning to fiction, Greg worked as a newspaper reporter in Georgia and Tennessee. Read more of his work at his website or find him on Twitter at @SullivanGL.