Douglas J. Ogurek
On our first day of practice, Thad Wingard stepped up to the plate. Coach Ty said, "See that house?" It was at least fifty yards beyond the left field fence. "Try to hit it." Then he set the pitching machine at 95 miles per hour. We were twelve and thirteen years old.
Where Spokely Lane meets Center Street, a breeze churns the aromas of citronella and sap. In the garage at 155 Spokely, residents of Trellis Hills mingle amid cigar smoke and the flicker of five televisions on which baseball teams battle. A Riverton Shields sign glows on the back wall. Occasionally, whoops, boos, smatterings of clapping, or cacophonous crescendos of triumph and disappointment join the croaks and chirps that clutch the intersection. But this is just one season.
On a fall afternoon, a circular saw shrieks in the garage, and the televisions show baseball and football games. Russ and Champ stop by. Alan brushes sawdust from his beard as he welcomes them. Champ gets the treat he's expecting, and Russ accepts an East Towne's Greatest. Sure, it's the cheapest beer at Stirlen Market, but there's something in that old school font. Champ chomps, and Alan stencils a Shields logo onto the bird feeder he's made. The men watch the games, and intermittently, they talk . . . about sports, and about politics, families, and the Garner County Forest Preserve. On the way out, Russ drops a couple bucks in a box. It has a yellow-headed blackbird painted on it.
A figure, the ice on its face mask reflecting the streetlights, its snow pants flapping, trudges toward the garage. The garage rattles. The thickness of the figure's gloves muffles the knock on the side door. It opens. Laughter, conversation. Football, basketball, hockey on the TVs. Alan, wrapped in a Shields blanket, smiles amid the aromas of popcorn and apple cider. "Keisha. Come on in." Others chime in: "Keisha." "Hey girl." "There she is." "Your team's winning." Keisha pours herself some hot cider, but first, she puts five dollars in the box with the yellow-headed blackbird.
May. "I wish I had more light on these students." Phil sands his art project: a model of a science classroom in which clusters of gym shoe-wearing aliens, the same ivy green as Phil's backwards Shields hat, investigate human infant cadavers with exposed organs. "I could get in some deep trouble. I mean, Mr. Cuttell? The principal? He's a hard-ass. I got a painting too. A desert landscape? I could just enter that."
Alan scoops bird seed into one of his feeders. "That getup of Fronda's? That was, what? Eighty-seven? Hard to miss, and some people, boy. They got really really mad. Eighty-seven, I think. Guess what though? It passed. They voted yes. Nineteen eighty-seven." The air, spry as the taste of fresh grapes, hosts the smells of cedar, seed, and glue, and the drums and brass of a distant high school ceremony.
"I hear you," says Phil. "She did it." The model has refrigerators filled with human cadavers, and on one table scowls a mounted teenager. Phil scans the televisions. "Screw it. If my school does it to cats, why can't an alien school do it to us? I'm going to do it. Thanks so much for your help with this." "I'm here." Phil drops some change in the box. "It's all I got." Alan hands Phil a book light with a thin neck. "It counts. Here, drill a hole in the bottom." As he leaves, Phil turns around his cap. Some of the ballplayers on television wear pink wristbands, and swing pink bats.
When you enter the Garden of Phantopt, humidity will clamp onto you, and through the fog you will glimpse diverse forms, some sharp, some gnarled, some convincingly sinuous. And you will hear, somewhere in the distance, an intermittent pounding.
First you encounter the giant insula bush, which coddles you with cool, cashmere-like leaves. At the plant's core, an iceberg blue luminescence and a metallic scent envelop you. You want to stay, to reflect and create, but that pounding penetrates.
Coach Ty lined us up near a row of tall evergreens. "You want to field? Fine. You want to pitch? Great. Practice with your friends. You want to learn technique? Watch pro ball. Read baseball books. I'm here to teach you how to hit home runs." He grabbed a ball from his plastic cat litter bucket. "One pitch at a time. First one to hit one over the trees gets to pick what goes on the Blast Box next game."
Bridgitta Pinder walked the aisle, and the other UrbRail passengers averted their eyes. She liked that. It was her gaunt face, she knew, and her shirt, the one whose unabashed pink letters spelled out, "No. They're not real."
The UrbRail odor oppressed the car, forced its way into the googahs' pantsuits and sweaters, and into the gruntgrunts' sports jackets. Pinder had to sit next to a googah. A pregnant googah. Even better.
The googah's admissions fee gloated on the hand that held her phone. "Mom, she's the one . . . Mom, Mom . . . look at the . . . Mom, she's the one who's all . . ." Her grape skin lips, her machete-shaped earrings, all her gruntgrunt lures no doubt faithfully adhered to whatever that October's Vogue suggested. And her perfume. It flirted with the ruling odor. "It's my . . . Mom . . . it's my party, right? So tell her . . . Mom. Tell her not to come, or I'm not coming." She hung up, then tossed her hair, hair highlighted and sprayed and gelled and angled to googah perfection.
Pinder felt the stubble beneath her bandana. Her seatmate was a glorified call girl. Just like Pinder's baby-junkie coworkers. Goo goo, gah gah.
The intercom: "All righty, good evening, folks. Now we just wanted to give you an update: the Shields have taken the lead in the fifth." Clapping, and the gruntgrunts smiled and grunted. Wasn't baseball over yet? Hard enough being on the train on a Monday night. Garage guy--he looked like a Henry--would have loved it. Maybe he'd invite them all to his garage. They'd waste the night away watching sports and drinking cheap beer. The voice returned. "That's a two-to-one lead, in the bottom of the fifth."
Next to Pinder, the gruntgrunt--the protrusion on his nose looked like a magnified cancer cell--pumped his fist. "Yes. It's our year." Our year? Really? She knew his cap's logo: two Ls placed back-to-back in a half bridge, half torture device look. Brad also liked the Locklin Bridges. The bastard.
The googah pulled out a laptop, and her perfume fluttered. Pinder's skin clanged. She knew that scent. She knew it from that night. Tomorrow, she'd tell Breastly about her coworker baby junkies May and Lilly. Tell her pregnancy decreases brain size. The spinster would get it.
Cell nose pawed at his mobile. He'd love Henry's sports cult, love worshipping those drip brains who made more in one game than he'd make in ten years.
Preggie searched the SoaringBaby website. That perfume. A woman's hair, saturated with that scent, crawled over Pinder's face that night, and the leather couch clutched her back and her thighs. Grunts groped through the new age music that smoldered in the loft, where everything glistened with the colors of ash and blade. Think about it, Leslie. Come two o'clock, those two aren't thinking about their client. They're thinking about the smell of baby's head, the feel of baby's skin. It's an addiction.
Cell nose picked up an umbrella, then tapped the googah in front of him. "Is this yours?"
"Oh, I must have . . . thank you."
When Pinder said that buying Bridges season tickets wasn't financially wise, Brad called her infantile. "Maybe I need to leave a couple days, huh? Maybe then you'll know how much you need me." Then there was that night, that "little get-together" he'd insisted they attend.
On Preggie's screen, a gruntgrunt lifted a child, and a smiling googah leaned back, casting out her breasts.
Pinder picked a leaf from her sleeve, then crumbled it. "Excuse me, did you go to college?"
The googah pulled her googah hair over her ear, brandished her googah earring. The eyes went from Pinder's bandana to her shirt. "Yeah?"
"Tell me. With the economy, the dire state of the economy? What motivated you to have a child?"
"What? Motivate . . . what?"
"I mean, what were you thinking? Were you thinking anything?"
"Ya know . . ." The googah shook her head, then returned to her screen. The scent engulfed Pinder. Tongues blotted her neck and chest that night. Above her, Brad's friend Charlie's bottom teeth jutted out, and his belly doughed over her abdomen. Across the concrete floor stood Brad, orange toenails sparking on either side of his flexing buttocks.
"At work, when you're at work? You'll tick off the minutes until you get to see your kid. You'll pump your tits . . ."
"Okay, okay. No. No."
"I mean, a mental fog. You'll pump your tits and think about snorting its head while your coworkers work."
"Okay, stop. Okay? I'm not even . . ."
"That's like saying, 'I'm going to take fifteen minutes off to sniff some cocaine and get paid for it.'"
"After--you don't even--I'm not even working afterwards." Her skin, no doubt filled with googah creams and artificial sunlight, gloated.
"Even better. You go to college, you get a degree, you work. Then you meet a man, give it all up."
"Okay, okay, you can't . . ."
"Your kids grow up, your mind turns to tofu, your body's a sack of glop, and your husband?"
"Who's who . . . stop."
"I mean, what's his idea of chivalry? Flushing after he shits?"
And yes, then came tears. Pinder wanted to rub them over her own scars.
Googah closed her laptop, then squirmed. "You're awful you're . . . my, he's . . . my husband's more than you'll . . ."
". . . you'll ever . . . have I can't find where's my . . ."
"I want look out, let me out you let me out."
"Goo goo, gah gah."
Preggie sobbed, and cell nose watched her stomp down the aisle then jerk open the door.
Five minutes later. "All righty folks, good news here. Your Riverton Shields have scored another run. Shields up three-one in the fifth." Cell nose clapped, pumped his fist.
Once, as they pumped that stuff into her, Brad called her. "Come on. I'm not asking for a new car. I'm asking for two hundred bucks to go to the game with Charlie."
Grunt grunt grunt hit ball with stick. Cell nose would love Henry. Grunt grunt tackle guy with ball grunt grunt ass and tits.
Pinder leaned toward cell nose. "Excuse me."
The fog will thicken, and your wrist will slip across your forehead as you draw closer to the source of the pounding.
From the slender shoots of the uhube drifts another sound, a cooing that soothes you and others like you. Its leaves, you discover, are mirrored, and teardrop-shaped. They feel like iced glass. You long to settle here, amid the therapeutic uhube, with your closest companions, to flourish within the fog.
But a scent flits by, and the pounding propels your journey.
You'd think that with a name like the Home Runs, we'd have cool uniforms. Glitzy. Silver and black and red, maybe, with fancy letters. Nope. Not with Coach Ty. Beige and brown, with a blocky brown "HR" on a beige cap.
Bronze covered a man in a long line at DawnGate Sports Palace. Bronze face paint. Bronze helmet with a sticker: "bronzecyclists.com." Bronze shirt, shorts, shoes.
He turned to the young man behind him. "Wow, this cashier is really, really fast. Just zoom. He should get a medal, a gold medal for speed."
The woman in front of them tsked. She had an aluminum baseball bat, and her Stephan Couper purse had a picture button showing a boy in a baseball uniform.
Bronze man rapped his shoebox, then addressed the young man. "Trick question: you like marshmallows?"
"There's pork in gelatin, and marshmallows got gelatin." The young man's T-shirt showed a slaughtered pig with the caption, "Mmmmarshmallows."
Bronze man tipped the shoebox toward the cap in the young man's hand. "Hawks . . . we used to go to Hawks games all the time. You a Hawks fan?"
"Did you see that QB sneak? Last weekend?"
"A beautiful thing. You think this guy's got it. No, no. You think that guy's got it. Nope. It's Reader. It's the QB. Reader has it. The QB all the way. Teamwork. Perfect."
"Glih, Hawks." The young man scanned the store.
The woman's bat had sharp-edged letters that spelled, "The Scepter."
Bronze man opened the box before the young man. Red and silver gym shoes. "These are really really high quality."
"Shoot. Wrong color."
"I'll get them painted." He stuck his nose in a shoe, inhaled. "You should smell these. They really really smell good. New high quality--these are Wayz--high high quality. Here."
The young man pulled away. "I got a cold."
"Well here. There's this shoe quality argument. Objective vs. subjective? Is quality in the eye of the beholder? Or can it be measured? Make sense? Measured through objective criteria. Which camp are you in?"
"Sore throat. I can't."
"I'm in the objective camp. Like with these here? I'm paying, what? Two-fifty for these? So you know the technology's going to be really really cutting-edge. But there's something psychological too I think. They're the most expensive. So they're better. So I pedal harder. Make sense?" Again he brought the box to the young man's face.
The young man shook his head. "I can't smell a thing."
An employee--his body twitched occasionally--passed out coupons. "Thank you. Here you are. Thank you for your patience."
Bronze man checked his bronze watch. His voice spanned several registers. "Why don't you guys change your name? LongWait. LongWait Sports Palace."
"I apologize for the wait sir. We're a little short in terms of staff today."
"You're a little short in terms of intelligence. A lot short."
The "kind of" Hawks fan stared at the floor, and The Scepter pinged against the register as the cashier rang it up.
"Trick question here: what's your slogan?"
The employee twitched. "Rule . . . Rule Your Game."
"So you're saying I'm a king? Your customers are kings? You have an awful, awful way of treating your kings. Behead that knave. Behead him."
The employee shook his head, and then, twitching, retreated.
The young man with the hat scanned the store. Bronze man asked him if he liked to bike.
"Ahhh . . . sometimes, kind of."
Bronze man handed him a bronze card. "Here. Look us up. Bronzecyclists.com."
The woman with The Scepter turned down the cashier's request for a donation for leukemia research.
Bronze man tapped her. "Trick question: if your son had leukemia, would you be upset? You, with your designer purse? Would you be upset?"
She squinted and showed her teeth. "Rude." She banged the bat's head against the floor, then left.
Bronze man pointed at his nose, then at the young man, then at the shoes.
"Look, I can't smell anything. All right?"
"I'll get them painted. But you should really really look us up."
The young man looked toward the exit, then at the card. His face compressed. "All right, what's with all the bronze?"
"It's earthy, you know? Of the earth? It's not gold or silver. It's bronze. Very very durable. Bronze, third place. If I get bronze, then I know I have weaknesses. So I'm trying harder for gold. A beautiful, beautiful thing."
The young man smelled one of the shoes. "You're up next."
Thirst will afflict you deep in the Garden of Phantopt, and you will detect something familiar in that scent.
A hissing, to your right, where alg reeds pierce the fog.
Like thousands of warped swords, the reeds rise above you as you, blinking away sweat, slog along the slender path that parts them.
You reach a clearing amid the reeds, and a cool mist alights on you. In here glides another fragrance, one that rouses images that you relish, and conceal. And at the center of this clearing slices the blue of the alg flower's petals.
Legend asserts that if you close off the pathway and nurture the alg flower, it will spout water that needs no sunlight or moonlight to shimmer, and that quenches your thirst with a touch.
But that pounding pushes through the reeds, and that scent--something peaceful in it--still summons you. You return to the main path, where the heat and fog fall on you.
Brooks said, "But Coach, we haven't won a game yet."
"What does it mean to win?" said Coach Ty. "To get more runs than the other team? I don't think so. You don't need more runs. You just need to try to hit home runs."
There's this guy who's always walking around town. He wears this backpack. Maybe he's got books in there. Or heads.
And he's always got on an Orioles hat. The team, of course. Like anybody would appreciate the actual bird. I did see the real thing once. When I was a kid.
You see this guy all over, and he carries this staff thing. Maybe it's to help with walking. Or maybe it's to cast spells on those who threaten his magical realm.
I've always wanted to know what's in that backpack. So yesterday I followed the guy. I thought I'd end up at some kind of dismemberment festival. Instead, he went to DawnGate Sports Palace.
I followed him past the fish torture department, past the destroy-forest-and-waste-millions-of-gallons-of-water-to-hit-ball-in-hole department.
Then I saw a Hawks cap on clearance. I could take a marker and write "destroy habitats" beneath the team logo. When I looked up, backpack/staff guy was gone. I decided to get the hat, then wait up front for the guy.
I got in line. Mistake.
This guy in front of me kept trying to get me to smell the two hundred-and-fifty dollar shoes he was buying.
There was something else weird about him. Hmmm. Let me see. Oh yeah, he was covered in bronze. His shoes, his clothes, his helmet. Shoot, even his face. He was some kind of charity bicyclist. An okay guy, but damn annoying.
He kept trying to talk to me. I thought if told him I couldn't talk, that I had a cold, then he wouldn't bother me. That's like thinking a dog wouldn't want a hot dog because the hot dog's covered in bacon. He just kept talking and trying to get me to smell those damn shoes.
And he kept insulting people. Like the cashier. He was real loud about how slow this kid was. The kid looked like he was about to get hit by a train. Glih, I bet he's the type of kid who blows up rabbits with M-80s.
The guy tore into the woman in front of us too. Because she didn't give to some charity. Leukemia, I think. Whatever it was, it wasn't animals. It never is.
He saw my hat and started talking about the Hawks. "We had a great QB sneak." Like he had something to do with it. "Did you see that QB sneak?" blah blah blah.
Guess what. Your Hawks . . . your Hawks, not mine, ripped apart twenty acres of forest to build their new practice facility. Shoot, you'd think a team would have common sense enough not to destroy the home of the creature that it's named after. I should have said that to him.
Then he went into this spiel about quality and . . . what was it? Oh, right. Shoes. "Is quality objective or subjective? It's a debate" blah blah blah "which do you prefer?"
The answer is, "Who gives a shit."
I kept looking around for that Orioles hat. But backpack/staff guy wasn't coming.
Then Mr. Smellmyshoes tried to recruit me for his bicycle club. He gave me this card. Guess what color. It said, "Bronze parts, gold hearts." The card had his website on it. Something about bronze bicycles or something.
I pointed out the shoe he was buying-did I mention it cost two hundred-and-fifty bucks?-wasn't bronze. He said he'd get it painted. Then he went into this monologue on bronze, and what he said, it kind of made sense. He had this look, so I just smelled the damn thing. And when I did that, I remembered that oriole I saw. I was way in the back of this forest, in my old neighborhood. It was morning, and almost everything was in shadows. But the sun hit this one spot. I went there, and just stood there, and this oriole flew right above me. Eventually they knocked down that forest, to build more houses.
I lost backpack/staff guy. Maybe he cast a spell and disappeared. Maybe I'll try again next weekend.
Here. Here it is. Bronzecyclists.com. Shoot.
Heat will hang, stomp, strive to break you, but the pounding will grow louder, and that fragrance will spark memories of those who've been good to you, and the good things you've done.
A hedge, glacier-like, rises to your right. Objects, hovering in the fog before it, resemble morphing waterdrops. You discover they are cutter moths, and that the hedge screens a recess formed with walls of ice moss.
You enter, and as your sweat dissolves, you consider the futility of returning to the path. It will be more of the same. More fog, more heat, more thirst.
But the pounding and the fragrance pull you back to the path.
Coach leaned on a thin metal rod. "The home run's a connection. A home run is good. It's an opportunity." He handed the rod to Tommy Boughton. "And don't just hit it over the fence. Smash it into tomorrow."
Boughton-he could barely lift the rod-said, "What about singles? Isn't batting average important?"
"I'd rather see you strike out fourteen times and hit one homer than get fifteen singles in a row. Think about it. If you were on a big boat, what would you rather see? Fifteen minnows, or a whale? Now let's take some practice swings."
The items in the garage at 155 Spokely Lane reveal more about its owner. A glass case displays a mitt, a cap, knee-high socks, and a tunic with a flared skirt and a Draperton Morning Glories logo embroidered on its chest. Alan's wife Fronda wore these on dusty fields while he fought in Cherbourg and Aachen.
Another case exhibits a yellow-headed blackbird costume. When they drove by their forest preserves, the people of Garner County would often see Fronda in this costume. They'd see her dancing and flapping and skipping, and they'd see her sign: "Keep Me Alive: Vote YES on Expansion." And they would.
On the back of the couch that has borne many Trellis Hills residents hangs Fronda's Shields blanket, with its crossed bats and ivy-decked shield. Every day--even in mid-winter--she would ask if the Shields won. He'd tell her they did. These days, when neighbors gather in that garage to watch football, and baseball seems as distant as the sun, you won't catch Alan without that blanket wrapped around him.
Then there is the wooden box decorated with the yellow-headed blackbird. All those who stop by add a little money, or a lot. At the end of each season, Alan gives its contents to the Garner County Forest Preserve District.
Another possible visitor approaches the driveway. Maybe he knew the couple when Fronda fought for the forest preserves, or when she pulled out her teeth because she couldn't tell Alan how badly it hurt. Or maybe he never knew Fronda, directly. He touches the yellow-headed blackbird mailbox, and the "Brooks" lettering that shines whalishly on its side.
A new gang has taken to the streets (and paths). Its membership is growing rapidly from coast to coast, and if you have yet to encounter a member, there's a good chance that you will soon.
Perhaps you'll see a group of them hustling on city streets. Or, deep in your forest preserve, you might find one rushing toward you.
When you do see them, you'll know right away: they wear bronze clothing, and ride bronze bicycles. They call themselves the Bronze Cyclists, and the only things that this gang wants to wreak havoc on are the cancer cells that kill twenty thousand people every day.
Tom Boughton, the group's boisterous founder, bikes while covered head-to-toe in bronze. "At first, people really thought I was kind of nuts," he said, "but they're coming around. This is really, really important."
Many seem to agree. Boughton first covered himself in bronze and set out alone on the bronze path in May of 2008. Since then, the group's national membership has grown to over two thousand. And rumor has it that Rodin's The Thinker isn't the only bronze figure in Europe.
Boughton got the idea for the Bronze Cyclists from his deceased son Michael.
In 1993, Boughton lost his thirty-year-old wife Sarah to breast cancer. Michael was eight.
Thirteen years later, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Boughton won a Bronze Star medal for bravery in Iraq. His team's vehicle was attacked with an explosive device. After regaining consciousness, Michael pulled two of his fellow Marines from the vehicle and delivered life-saving treatment.
But the scars from Michael's experience ran deep, and in 2005, he died of suicide.
"He always wanted to do something with cancer and bicycles," said Boughton. "So the Bronze Cyclists celebrate the best of Mike. It's a beautiful thing."
Each Bronze Cyclist receives a bronze odometer, and then contributes ten cents for every mile he or she puts on it. Ninety percent of all contributions go to cancer research. "There's a bit of a friendly competition going on here," explained Boughton. "We post everyone's mileage on our website."
The mileage the Bronze Cyclists are achieving goes far beyond distance: to date, they have pedaled their way to over two hundred thousand dollars for cancer research.
When asked what he hopes to achieve with the Bronze Cyclists, Boughton recalled advice from an old little league coach: "I'm not just going for a home run with this. I'm trying to smash it into tomorrow."
Photo caption: Tom Boughton in his typical bronze attire.
Each time one of us got a home run, Coach Ty would pass the Blast Box around the bleachers. People stuffed in their coins and singles and fives and tens--we even got a couple hundreds. Every game, the box showed a different charity. We struck out a lot, and we usually lost, but no other team hit nearly as many homers as the Home Runs. And no other team had larger crowds.
The pounding and the fragrance have nourished you, have helped you fight fog and heat.
A child's laughter bounces through the garden, and you reach four tystalks, each of which rises ten feet and is crowned with a nest.
The pounding sounds as if it is coming from your own hands, and in that scent curl traces of wood, and honey.
A girl toddles out of the fog. She inspects the small slots at the base of each stalk.
The woman with her examines the sign next to the tystalks. "See those nests wayyyy up there? Those are birds' nests. Vitis finches. The birds? They're called vitis finches."
The fog recedes to reveal a fence fifteen feet from you.
"You put coins in the holes," says the woman. "Those, right. Then the coins go wayyyy up to those nests. See those up there?"
The girl nods, and you recognize the scent of wine.
"And the finches take the coins to people who need help. People, and animals."
There is an opening in the fence, and a man.
The girl peers up at the nests. "Where's the finch bird?"
"It comes later."
The sign says that each slot represents a different charity: National Foundation for Cancer Research, St. Francis's Animal Guardians, the American Society for Mental Health, and Coping with Alzheimer's.
Another scent: fresh bread. The man by the fence has a hammer.
"Mommy, can we see the bird?"
"It comes at night, when you're sleeping, but I think something happens when you put coins in there. Here." The mother digs in her purse.
The man with the hammer is building a second entrance to the Garden of Phantopt. Beyond the opening in the fence, other botanic garden visitors mingle at a café.
The sign says that Thad Wingard designed this fantasy plant.
The girl taps your leg. "Will you put coins in here? For the bird that comes?"
Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Ogurek founded the controversial literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g., extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. He guest-edited the UNSPLATTERPUNK! trilogy, published by Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. Ogurek reviews films at that same magazine. Recent longer works include young adult novel Branch Turner vs the Currants (World Castle Publishing) and horror/suspense novella Encounter at an Abandoned Church (Scarlet Leaf Publishing). More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com. Twitter: @unsplatter