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By Gordon McAlpine
His mother wears her gray hair in a tight bun. It is knotted with pins on the back of her head at approximately the same anatomical spot her son viewed through a crosshair scope some months ago on the head of Christopher Columbus Houston. It has become a nervous habit for her, since the trial, to reach back and touch the bun, to pat it carefully as though it were a beloved little animal.
She keeps her son's room intact, the bookshelves dusted weekly though no book or magazine is ever disturbed, in anticipation of a time when he might return to their small, clapboard house to live once again within the jurisdiction of a needlepoint plaque that hangs on the living room wall:
Jesus is the head of this household
The unseen guest at every meal
The silent listener of every conversation
She sits lightly on his bed, barely making an indentation on the plaid spread, and rubs her fingers thoughtfully on the shiny wood of the headboard. She is thin, though not the emaciated wreck of a woman the press has portrayed her as being, and when she speaks her voice comes out as a delicate strain.
"This was my bed when I was a girl and then when Richard was born, my parents gave it to him. It's only a single bed but it's very hard. Good for your back."
Posters of big league greats decorate the walls. Over the headboard hangs a Dodger pennant with the dates and scores of memorable games scrawled on the felt with a marking pen. An autographed picture of Eric Karros stands on a small desk near the window. A recent high school diploma, Richard's name in calligraphy at the bottom, is filed in the desk beneath a stack of game programs and back issues of The Sporting News. A shoebox is filled with baseball cards that have been cross-referenced according to each player's team, position, and racial or ethnic origina thick, rubber-banded stack of white players, a thick stack of black players, a thick stack of Latinos, some Jews, and a handful of Asians. Christopher Columbus Houston, who for the second half of one season was the greatest player ever to swing a bat, is not included in any of the collector's stacks. This is because he was absent at spring training when the cards are photographed. However, even if Houston had been immortalized on cardboard, it is doubtful Richard Smith would have been willing or able to categorize the slugger with regard to race.
"What bothers me most," his mother says, pushing her knuckles into the hard bed, "is the fact that no one gives Richard any credit for having spotted that baseball player for what he was. A freak. An oddity. He wasn't a normal man. Everybody knows that now, but Richard knew it first. He always used to say, ėThere's something funny about that guy . . .'"
Just behind the house, visible from the window in Richard's bedroom and through the chain-link fence separating private property from the school grounds, stands a backstop and baseball diamond. Children play, sliding and shouting.
"Que sera, sera," she says, pronouncing the Spanish form of the verb "to be" like the woman's name Sarah. The children argue violently about a call at home plate. "Sarah, sarah . . ." she says.
* * *
On the police commissioner's massive desk stands a framed photograph taken at a press conference thirteen years ago. In the color picture, the commissioner stands behind a wooden podium from which a score of television and radio microphones protrude. He is smiling in the photograph, his eyes less puffy than now, his hairline less receded; at his side stands a tall man with a muscular build only half concealed beneath a black cape that reaches to the floor. The tall man wears a sparkling silver mask that covers his eyes and nose; at first glance, he could be mistaken for a TV wrestler.
The press conference at which the photo was taken had been held in the basement of the city hall to accommodate the overflow of reporters. The commissioner, new then to his position of civic responsibility, stepped to the microphones and cleared his throat: "Well," he said, drawing a deep breath before continuing. "It is my great pleasure to introduce to you, ladies and gentlemen, the individual responsible for bringing the Rossmoor kidnapping case to a successful conclusion."
The commissioner stepped back as spontaneous applause arose from a crowded group of reporters. The man in the cape smiled, his teeth gleaming, then held up a single, steady hand to bring an end to the ovation.
"Questions for our friend?" the commissioner asked.
The room exploded in a flurry of hands and shouts. The crowd moved forward a step in a strangely rhythmic procession, first the front and then the back, the way a segmented worm moves across a sidewalk. They pressed against the ropes. The noise continued for nearly a minute before the man in the silver mask held up a single finger to bring it to a halt. The auxiliary room in the basement fell silent.
"Why do you wear a mask?" the young reporter asked, feeling strangely courageous while the others, real journalists, remained silent.
The tall man's eyes shone out from behind the silver mask. He moved to the microphones, blowing softly into them before speaking in a deep, calm voice: "I possess physical abilities beyond the norm. Faster, stronger. I'm sure the eyewitness reports of the actual arrest in this case confirm that fact. But it's important for you all to know . . ." He stopped. In the interval of near silence he cleared his throat, a nervous habit none of us in that room would have guessed he had. "Well, emotionally," he continued, "I'm just like everyone else. I don't possess a perfect intellect, nor am I immune to human failings. The mask, you see, is my defense. Not from criminals, as you might suspect if you've read the comic strips, which are, by the way, quite unrealistic in their depiction of . . . super powers. Rather, the mask protects me from you all. I mean, reporters. And your readers. And from myself. See, I go grocery shopping and buy socks and underwear and pump my own gas just like you all. The mask means I can keep doing such things."
"How did you come to possess such physical powers?" the young reporter asked.
The man smiled. "I'm sure you've all heard stories about grandmothers who somehow rise in the heat of the moment to accomplish supposedly impossible feats of strength, like lifting cars to save loved ones from accidents. It's all true. People try to explain such incidents by referring to the adrenaline surge that rushes into the bloodstream during great stress. But we all know there's something more than just a hormone at work in such cases. For me, I can honestly explain no further than to say that the mysterious ėsomething more' is a constant in my bloodstream. I don't know why."
One of the experienced reporters across the room raised his hand as if a spell had been broken and he had suddenly become reanimated. He shouted, "Who are you? What's your name?"
Then the man in the silver mask disappearedliterally disappeared. Or so it seemed to us in that auxiliary room at city hall. A breeze swept through the room shortly after his exit. The reporters all turned in circles as if he were somewhere to be found.
Later that afternoon, when a videotape editor slowed down the footage of the press conference, the caped man's exit was at last visible to the human eye. It was no dematerialization. It was speed. Faster than sound. The superslow videotape even indicated that he had stopped at the refreshment table for a doughnut before slipping out the door. All this had occurred faster than the eye could follow.
Beside the press conference photograph on the police commissioner's desk is an an autographed picture draped with a black ribbon. It is Christopher Columbus Houston in his white California Angels uniform. The words written just beneath where the bat rests on his shoulder read: "To an old and dear friend . . ."
The commissioner, dressed in a tailored suit, his hand shaking visibly as if he were an old man, points first to the thirteen-year-old picture of the press conference. "I'll always be very proud of my association with him," he says. "Do you know that eighteen months ago, when he disappeared from the scene, the crime rate in this city doubled in less than two weeks? I'm not sure people realized just what an impact he made or how quietly, if you consider his dramatic talents, he was able to do it."
Then he points to the photograph of the smiling ballplayer and says, "And I'm proud of my association with him too. Not because of his skill on the diamond, but because of the integrity that allowed him to resist the fame and fortune for so long."
* * *
The Cedar Villa Apartments in Downey, California, rise from among forty-year-old frame houses like a stucco mountain rising from the sea. The outfacing windows on the top floor, three flights up, display small hanging plants and the reverse sides of stained-glass beer advertisements bought at the giant swap meet at the Paramount Drive-In. At night, the blue glow of television slips out into the street and on weekends tenants sign up on a chalkboard in the parking lot for a turn to use the hose to wash their small cars.
Inside the building is an open courtyard around which the apartments are built. Pool chairsthere is no poolare arranged in a semicircle around the barbecue and two potted palms stand like sentinels beside the peepholed door to the manager's apartment. Kate Mackelberg: 101.
She is a large woman, nearly fifty, with a booming voice. Most often she wears caftans. Her apartment is decorated with souvenirs from her vacations. A ceramic set of Mexican musicians play silently on the coffee table, the set bought in Tijuana along with a bouquet of foot-wide flowers she keeps in a woven basket that her brother brought to her from Korea. A painting of a sad beagle, huge moist eyes, carefully rendered on black velvet and framed with heavy, stained wood, hangs over the sofa. The drinking glasses used for visitors have an artist's depiction of a sign of the zodiac printed on one side and on the other, an illustrated sexual position that is presumably suitable for Capricorns, Aquarians, and so on. On TV is a rerun of The Brady Bunch; Florence Henderson beams.
Kate Mackelberg raises her glass (Sagitarius, missionary position) for a toast. "To Christopher Columbus Houston," she says, guzzling the Dr. Pepper.
"He never had any money for rent. But that was all right because after a while we sorta worked out an arrangement. I have to admit that I never suspected he was doing all those heroic things around here, but you can believe me that in some ways I knew he was special. I mean physically. He had talents . . ."
She shakes the ice cubes from side to side in her glass before setting it down on a coaster the shape of Nevada. She stands. Her strong fingers smooth the wrinkles gathered about her caftan. "And besides his talents, he brought me culture," she says. She turns off the TV and spins a record that waits on the turntable of a plastic stereo. Piano. "Chopin," she announces.
Returning to the couch, into which she sinks until the billowing material of her wide dress blends with the busy fabric of the slipcover, she hums to the gentle notes. "Chopin is my favorite. He went in more for the dramatic ones. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. We used to listen to the 1812 Overture while we were physically engaged. Used to time it so that right as the cannons start going off . . ." She winks. "Want more Dr. Pepper?"
She swallows down a burp. "He hardly had any furniture in his apartment. I guess he didn't have any money. I don't know why. Guy like him doesn't need a lot of things. He came complete. Didn't need no assembly or batteries. Only time he ever said anything at all about money was when he was saying how unimportant it was. And the moments he chose to say that were the moments when nobody feels like arguing. You know? But his ideas were all right with me. I figured his finances were what kept other women away from him. You know, I'm not bad looking or anything but I am a few years older than he was and he was a pretty damn good looker. I wasn't gonna complain about his ambition. I didn't care if he slept all day, so long as he was rested up for me. I'd have never guessed he was out arresting people."
She pops an ice cube into her mouth. Then she lets it slide down her tongue back into the glass. It clanks. "Nocturne in E flat. So damn beautiful. Listen. Da-dum-dum-dum da-dum-dum-dum-da-dum-dum . . . Reminds me of him. The way he used to fold his socks so neat before he took off the rest of his clothes. You know what they said after all the news about him came out? About how he rejected crime fighting for the lure of money or however the bastards put it? How he became a baseball player just because he wanted to be rich? Well, that's not true. Because he must have known he could always get some money from me if he ever really needed it. I'd have shared anything I had with him. Anything at all. I play this song a lot because it's so beautiful, huh? Don't you think? He wasn't into money, there must have been some other reason. I just wish he had told me. This man. I could have saved him. Why not? So beautiful, isn't it?"
* * *
What follows is a transcript of the pregame interview with Christopher Columbus Houston as conducted by Skip Caray and Tim McCarver of Fox Sports. The interview was taped forty minutes before the scheduled start of game two of the World Series, which would later be postponed for one day following the assassination.
McCarver: We have with us today the man who almost single-handedly knocked off the Dodgers yesterday in game one. Chris Houston.
Houston: Hi Tim.
McCarver: Five for five with three home runs. That diving catch in the eighth. What a day.
McCarver: You were jumping all over Park's fastball. Has the youngster lost any velocity?
Houston: No Tim. I was just feeling good.
McCarver: Seems to me you've been feeling good all season. A five hundred average? Nobody thought that could ever be done. How'd you do it?
Houston: I don't really know. All I can say is that when I step up to the plate, I feel a rush in my bloodstream and everything becomes easier. Like the stories you hear about grandmothers who pick up cars to save loved ones trapped beneath. Only that's how I feel every time I step up to the plate.
Caray: Chris, this is Skip Caray upstairs. I got one question for you. Why'd you wait so long to get into baseball? What could waiting on tables have had that kept you away so long?
Houston: Well, sometimes I miss the tips. But . . . I guess I was just never sure about what I wanted.
McCarver: You sure now?
Houston: No, not really. But after this season I'll make a decision about my future.
Caray: Quit after half a season?
Houston: No Skip, never quit. But maybe move on.
McCarver: Good luck today, Chris.
Houston: Thank you.
* * *
Inmates refer to the long, narrow room in the maximum security block at the San Quentin State Penitentiary as the "YMCA." Fifteen or twenty rows of wooden park benches, bolted to the floor, sit before a single television that is suspended on wire cables from the ceiling. Behind the television are two Ping-Pong tables and on the walls hang posters with inspirational messages printed beneath pictures of adorable animals. A friendly gorilla, holding a banana, looks into a magnificently photographed sunrise: "This is the first day of the rest of your life."
The television is hooked to a videotape player because most of what is shown on commercial or cable TV has been judged as unsuitable for these men. Most movies played in this room star Julie Andrews or Doris Day, though The Unsinkable Molly Brown starring Debbie Reynolds is Richard Smith's favorite. He is serving a life sentence.
"Never been in this room before when there weren't twenty or thirty other guys in here making noise," he says. "Seems a little funny. Kinda scary almost."
Smith runs his hands along the top of the wooden bench the way his mother ran her hands along the headboard of his small bed. He looks younger than nineteen, his smooth face showing no signs of an impending beard or even adolescent stubble, and his voice is soft. Straight blond hair hangs down in his blue eyes. After the trial, the district attorney claimed it was Smith's innocent appearance that kept him from receiving the death penalty.
"I don't really mind all the bad things people are saying about me. Except for what it's doing to my mother, having to hear people call her the mother of a killer. You know, people ought to give her credit for having raised a boy with more sense than most. I mean, I was onto that guy a long time before anybody else. Nobody bats five hundred who's normal. I mean, come on. The guy was too fast, too strong. It wasn't fair. Would have ruined baseball. People ought to be grateful to my mother. It wasn't fair."
He takes a deep breath, closing his eyes as if in a state of meditation, then smiles. "And they ought to give her credit for raising a boy who's clever. Brought the rifle in all broken down in a big black suitcase. Told the security officer it was camera equipment inside. I don't even own an instamatic! And a good shot too. Had to hit him from the upper deck. Didn't mean no disrespect by shooting him during the national anthem. I'm naturally very patriotic. Last November was the first time I would have been able to vote. But they wouldn't let me do it in here. The national anthem was the best time because he was standing still. And his back was turned. That way he couldn't dodge the bullet. Nobody could have figured it out better than I did. Why doesn't my mother get any credit for that?"
His smile widens, then dims, as his long fingers work the wooden bench like a sculptor's fingers in soft clay. He kneads until after a moment he is able to slip a fingernail beneath a crack in the paint and flip a chip off onto the floor.
"Course I didn't know about all the crime fighting in his past. Nobody knew then. But it wouldn't have mattered because the point is, was he still fighting crime? No he wasn't. He had gotten greedy and had turned his back on all the poor victims just to make a few million bucks a year and to ruin baseball for all the real athletes and fans. So he wasn't a hero anymore. Just a freak. I didn't kill no human being. Tell me this: Can a human being hit five hundred in the big leagues? Can a human being run down a speeding car? Nope."
He looks around the empty room. A beam of sunlight shines through a ventilation duct in the ceiling.
"I don't mind it here. I got a good radio that can pick up KABC in Los Angeles so I can hear all the Dodger games. That's the one thing people forget most. I'm a real Dodger fan. How could I let some freak with the California Angels, the shitty Angels of all teams, beat my Dodgers in the first ever Freeway Series. That's why it doesn't matter to me what anybody says. Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Dodgers, called me depraved. Can you believe that? So you know what I say to him? ėSarah, sarah, buddy. At least our team, yours and mine, won.'"
Written in careful letters on a chalkboard across the room:
Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Mighty Mouse
* * *
Orville Beckworthe was a rookie infielder the year of the Freeway Series and was standing, cap over heart, directly beside Christopher Columbus Houston at the moment of the gunshot. He remembers turning and seeing blood, a torn piece of scalp falling as if in slow motion through the air, and seeing the star slugger's knees buckle. There was screaming and crying and running, every player falling to the ground or diving into the dugout for cover, and the mayhem was such that Beckworthe is unsure now as to whether what he remembers is what actually happened or only a hallucination born of panic and utter sadness. But it is still real to him: Houston turning, a thin stream of blood flowing from his mouth, almost smiling. "You hear about grandmothers," he said before falling forward. The bill of his cap, pressed down into the ground with his impact, cut a straight line in the soft grass. EFQ
GORDON McALPINE is the author of two novels, Joy in Mudville and
The Persistence of Memory. He has published short stories in journals
both in the United States and abroad. He lives with his family in California.
© 2000 Gordon McAlpine
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