When it comes to Clean-Livin’, I don’t know where to begin. I guess I need to tell it to you as if it were a ball game. Old Rockford would have wanted it that way. ‘Course, the whole story fits in rather ironically with the last game that poor soul ever played.
I can’t remember who it was we were playing that evening. My faulty memory seems to think it might have been a team of barnstormers come through the area. Teams like that would pass through on their way down to Philadelphia. You never knew exactly who you’d be playing against neither. Sometimes it was just a group of bushers looking for a quick game and an easy gate. Other times you’d run into ex-major leaguers trying to make ends meet, or in the offseason, real big leaguers trying to supplement their lousy wages. I guess even they were subject to their own breed of coal barons, that being the owners.
At any rate, we were playing at Panhandle like we were accustomed to. Got off to a slow start in the first with O’Malley leading off in Dusty’s old spot and one of his cronies hitting in Chief’s vacated two hole. Both of them were disgraces to the game as far as I was concerned.
Then Clean-Livin’ came up to the plate. I used to watch him swing a bat. Only swing I’ve seen since was as pretty as Rock’s had to be old Ted Williams with his Boston outfit, and even he might have been lacking when compared with the Canary right fielder. Boy, was he the toughest out on any ball field! That mild mannered gentleman would saunter up to the box looking all refined and stately. Then he’d dig in and transform into one grizzled sonuvabitch, let me tell you.
On this particular night he stepped into the box in his patented way and stared in at the pitcher. He was a patient man, and his first order of business was to promptly take five straight pitches. They were close pitches too. Any one of them could have been called the opposite way. As it was, the count sat full. But Rock had no fear. I swear that man enjoyed hitting with a pair of strikes ganging up on him. Used to say it motivated him.
Well, the next pitch came tumbling in there, a curveball, and Rock just tapped it out of play without the slightest effort. And the next pitch, another breaking ball, yielded the same result; and the next pitch, and yet another. Before long, Rock had completely evaporated the umpire’s valuable store of new baseballs. But he wasn’t about to give in and swing at any old pitch served to him. He wanted his own pitch, and he got it on the next delivery, rapping a lined shot straight up the middle for a single. Ho-hum for the casual fan, but to me, it was the type of at-bat that sealed Rock’s legend as a hitter.
I’m sure his single was far back in his mind some time later when he arrived home to see his wife Elizabeth. If ever there was love from a man to a woman, it was Rockford’s for his ‘Lizbeth. But when he walked upstairs to the bedroom to inform her of his exciting news from the game, she was in no condition for listening. She lay on the bed shivering. Beads of sweat collected on the porcelain skin of her forehead and rolled down her face one by one at odd intervals. Jimmy and Agnes, Rock’s children, kneeled motionless at the foot, their faces frozen with worry and confusion.
I had taken the walk back from Panhandle with Clean-Livin’ as I usually did, him being a neighbor and all. It was a good thing I had. “Eddie, go call the doctor,” he said without much strength in his voice. One look at poor Elizabeth and I didn’t waste any time.
Doc Henrich’s house was just around the corner on Locust Street. When I returned with the doctor, old Rockford leaned over his stricken wife holding a damp cloth over her forehead. He looked like all of his strength had boiled up inside of him and spilled out through his pores.
It was a mighty stark contrast with the vision of the same man back in the third inning of the late afternoon game. There was one out and runners at the corners. Game was still scoreless despite a few miscues in the field by O’Malley. The batter hit a lined shot that seemed destined for the gap in right center. But up pops Clean-Livin’ to make a beautiful catch on the run before spinning and firing a bullet to the plate to chop down a tagging runner. Clean-Livin’, at that moment, was a man in complete control.
A few days later, however, I saw a new side of Clean-Livin’; one who’d lost all form of control. It was in the cemetery of St. Ignatius where I first saw Rockford as a human being, when Elizabeth was laid to rest after losing a tragic fight.
Rockford stood over that casket looking all haggard with a perpetual stream of tears running down his cheeks. You could just see that man’s heart crumbling to coal ash right before your eyes. When they lowered Elizabeth into the same ground her husband mined each day, I thought for a second Rockford just might follow. But he remained still, shoulders dropped, hair messy, eyes swollen with grief.
After the funeral, I felt obliged to offer my respects to Rockford, so I trudged over to him without much of an idea of what I would say. I decided to hang back a bit and listen to someone else offer their condolences so as not to make a complete fool of myself or make Clean-Livin’ feel any worse than he already did. First one to step up was Doc Henrich.
“Rockford, please believe me,” he said, “I did everything I could.”
“I know, doctor.”
“Elizabeth is such a tragic loss for your family and this entire community.”
“Yes.” Rock sounded listless, as if his feet were not planted firmly on Centralian soil. It was like he’d already floated off and out of this town already.
“Just wish I could do something for you, Rockford. Anything. Just ask.”
“Look, Doc. Ain’t nothin’ gonna bring her back to me. She’s gone.”
“She’s in a better place.”
“You think? ‘Cause I thought the best place she could be was here with her family. Guess we could all be wrong sometimes.”
“Come now, Rockford, don’t be unfair to yourself.”
“Look, Doc…maybe there’s something you can do for me.”
“Name it, Rock.”
“Could you look’ after Jimmy and Agnes for a few hours? I need some air.”
“Consider it done, Rock. You just do what you need to do and I’ll run Jimmy and Agnes round your place later tonight.”
“Thanks, Doc.” And the two quickly shook hands and exchanged a long embrace. I never did get my chance to offer condolences, cause the next time I saw Clean-Livin’ was a few hours later at the Bull’s Head.
This was quite a surprise in its own right. Like I said, the man never drank anything stronger than a glass of whole milk. But as soon as I arrived at work that night I heard Clean-Livin’ arguing a little with Pop at the bar.
“I said I want a shot of whiskey, Ed.”
“And I said you don’t need no kinda problem like that right now, Rock.”
“Ed, I’m a paying customer and a reasonable man, but if you don’t get me my order I’m gonna bust you up right here behind your own bar.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, sir.” And, boy, did old Rock mean it. I’d never seen him like that before. Pop hadn’t either, so he decided it best to oblige to Rock’s wishes, especially being that he’d just lost his wife. Let me tell you, there wasn’t a head in that barroom didn’t spin around when that shot came pushing across the bar into Rock’s calloused hands.
Course, there were a lot of heads turning in the fourth inning of that game I was telling you about, too. That’s when old Rock came up for his second at bat. Score was still tied at zero; there was a man on first and two outs. Clean-Livin’ stepped up to the plate, dug in, and commenced on his usual routine of looking at balls and spoiling tough strikes. He was a pitcher’s worst nightmare, he was. After he’d ran the count full again and thoroughly frustrated the visiting pitcher, I saw this steely look take over his face and I knew he was primed to do something big.
Well, the next pitch came tumbling in and, by golly, did Rock crush a lined shot down the right field line! Rube cruised around the bases and touched home just about the same time Clean-Livin’ coasted into second base for a double.
Now, if you think back to the old barroom, things weren’t going quite so gingerly. I know I said it before, but they didn’t call him Clean-Livin’ for nothing. This was a man who hadn’t tasted but a nip of whiskey in all his born days. And I wasn’t kidding when I said every head in that bar swiveled ‘round bout faster than a man who got kicked by a mule. Old Rock became an instant sideshow that night.
“Better drop two more up here on the bar, Demps. I ain’t feeling the effects yet.”
“You sure about this, Rock? I mean—“
“Two shot, Demps. Make it quick.” And one after another I watched Pop oblige. Lord knows just how much whiskey that man poured down his gullet. All I know is, I can remember at least one occasion where I noticed Pop drain out the last few drops of a bottle into one of Rock’s waiting shot glasses.
All the boys in that bar who knew Clean-Livin’ in the least commenced to hooting and hollering and whooping and wailing. It was almost like a moral victory for those guys to see as straight-laced a character as Rockford Slate just cutting loose.
But, I’ll tell you, before long things started getting mighty ugly. Turned out Clean-Livin’ wasn’t much of a lively drunk after all. Got meaner than a rabid wolf about as quick as anyone I’d ever seen drink at the Bull’s Head, and I’d been scrubbing floors at that place since I cut my first tooth.
The way his anger built up seemed downright innocent at first. Nothing more than a sweaty brow and a wrinkled smile at first. Then, without even the slightest warning, a Jekyll and Hyde-like transformation took root. The wisps of dark hair around his ears, usually combed neater than a row of corn, now curled up like tiny handlebars and the wrinkled smile descended into a half-dazed grimace. His stature, at all times gentlemanly erect, now made him out to look like he should have been working a bell tower somewhere. The man was a mental and physical mess, so Pop and I were both glad to escort him home at closing time, thankful that his little episode had come to an end.
But the very next day old Rockford was right back in that barroom whooping it up. Once, when Pop refused to give him any more booze, Rock reached a calloused hand behind the bar and grabbed a bottle just for himself.
It went on like this for days and days. Once or twice I caught Rock sleeping out in the alley behind the Bull and escorted him home, each time looking in on Jimmy and Agnes and each time noticing the same frozen expressions on their faces from the night Elizabeth fell ill.
“Rock, why don’t you go home to your kids?” I heard Pop frequently ask him.
“They’re better off without me,” he’d reply emotionless before pouring another installment of spirits down his throat. Then the nightly rant would begin. “They need Elizabeth. Hell, I need Elizabeth! How the hell could she just up and leave us like this? She gave up, Demps. I stood there and watched her just give up on us.”
“She didn’t give up, Rockford.” And then he’d start in with the yelling and saying some of the meanest damn things I’d ever heard him say to people.
“What the hell do you know?!? Yer nothin’ but a two-bit barman, and a yella-bellied one at that! And what the hell are you lookin’ at you motherless little bastard! Yer just as rotten as yer miserable old man! And Lucy…Lucy, you’ll never get a man workin’ a loose joint like this one! Yer all—“
“Rock! Knock it off, god damn it!” And Pop’s voice would always seem to bring him back to Earth a bit. Then he’d just start crying, and I mean just sitting at the corner of the bar and bawling. I never even knew the guy had a damn tear in his entire body and here he was crying out about every last drop of his soul. It probably went on like this for about a week and half. That’s about when I saw one of the saddest things I ever saw in my life.
It was during one of Rock’s little fits when it happened. He’d just passed the part about Lucy being a loose woman and was getting ready to refill a few glasses with his tears when the door swung open and in walked Dropeski. But he wasn’t alone. He had two county sheriffs in full uniform flanking him on either side. I could tell by the looks on their faces they weren’t at the Bull’s Head because they were thirsty. No, they were here to do something regrettable
“Mr. Rockford Slate in attendance tonight?” He sounded downright official when he said it too, like he was trying to mark Rock absent from school or something. Had a whole bunch of papers and legal-looking documents in his hands too. Suddenly, I knew exactly what was happening.
“Who the hell wants to know?!” Rock replied with a fresh burst of anger.
“Mr. Slate, I’m here with two members of the state police.”
“What, you think I’m under age or something? Nobody ever seen a man take up drinking as a companion?”
“Can’t say as I have, Mr. Slate.”
“Well I need some kinda companion, constable, and if I ain’t got ‘Lizbeth then it’ll have to be whiskey.”
“And you have a right to do that, Mr. Slate. That’s not why I’m here.”
“Well, get to the point then cause I got a whole lot more mournin’ to do before mornin’. Mornin’! You get it!?!”
“Rockford, listen to me! It’s about your children.”
“Jimmy and Agnes? Wha—“
“We had no choice but to remove them from your custody.” And that’s about when all hell broke loose. Clean-Livin’ let out a scream that wasn’t far off from a war whoop and then he just collapsed to his knees, eyes red and brimming with water, jaw shaking, and the embers of a great fire glowing just behind his irises.
“You sunsabitches! You won’t come near my children! I’ll kill all of you! I—I’ll—“
“I’m sorry, Rockford. We’ve already taken them. There’s nothing I can do.” That’s when Clean-Livin’ bolted to his feet and made forth like a charging bear. Got real close to Dropeski, too, before the two large gentlemen at his hips intervened. Clubbed old Rockford around something good before leaving him limp and whimpering on the barroom floor. It all happened so fast, all I could do was stand there with my jaw somewhere down near my waist.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Slate,” Dropeski said with finality, “We’ll check back with you in time. Until then, clean up your act.” And the three gentlemen of the law spun in unison and marched out the door just like that.
Found out some time later they’d taken Jimmy and Agnes to an orphanage somewhere far upstate so Clean-Livin’ didn’t get any ideas about trying to find them. It was a piece of information that didn’t really matter at the particular moment. Heck, to Clean-Livin’, I wasn’t sure anything mattered at all anymore. As I watched him writhe around in anguish on the same floor I’d cleaned for Pop a thousand times, I thought for sure we were witnessing the end of old Rockford Slate. But I was wrong. I hadn’t taken the man’s resilience, his tenacity, his ability to overcome odds into account.
Which brings me back to that game I was telling you about. Rock comes up after knocking a single and a double in his first two at bats and making good with the leather too. I think it was the bottom of the seventh, there were two men on base and one out. The visiting club had just taken a two to one lead the inning before, so things were getting late very early this day.
This time, Rock didn’t waste no time. He clubbed the very first pitch on a screaming line into the left center gap. It looked like a sure-fire double, but somewhere somebody must have been smiling down on us cause the ball took a pinball-like ricochet off the fence and rolled what seemed like a million miles into the corner. Two runs crossed the plate and Rock coasted easily into third with a triple.
Clean-Livin’ was always helping the team bounce back like that, which is why it should have been no surprise he’d clean up his act and get his kids back.
From the moment Dropeski and his bodyguards left the Bull’s Head that evening, Rock was a different man. Well, I guess you could say he was the same man, cause he changed his ways back to the Clean-Livin’ we were accustomed to.
“I have to get ‘em back, Demps,” he said to my pop as he picked himself up from the floor and dusted off his wrinkled clothing. “I need to make things right.”
“We know you will, Rock. Just stay away from the liquid. Why don’t you get yourself home and get cleaned up?”
“I think I’ll do that.” And that was all it took. Just as unlikely as he’d started drinking, he completely stopped. The next morning I saw him walking along Locust Street in his neatly pressed suit, a book under his arm. His back was straight, his shoulders high, and his hair combed neatly beneath his hat. It was like he’d never had a sip of whiskey in his life.
Clean-Livin’ spent the better part of a month getting back to his normal routine; tipping his hat to passersby, opening doors for people, putting in extra time underground. And I’ll never forget the day those same officers returned with cheery smiles instead of clubs. They brought Jimmy and Agnes with them, and I saw a light turn on in Rock that’d been dark since the day Elizabeth fell ill. It seemed, for now at least, the whole terrible cycle had finally run its course.
Speaking of cycles, let me get back to the game we were talking about, cause I’ll never forget the chatter inside the Canary dugout before the start of the final inning the night. The boys had managed to keep quiet all game, mostly because a few of the duller edges on that bench simply hadn’t realized what was happening right under their noses. But an idiot is an idiot cause he strikes at all the wrong times. That’s something I figured myself just about the same time old Perry Foghorn said one of the dumbest things I ever heard him say.
“All you need is the dinger, Rock, and you’ll hit for the cycle.” The words hung in the air for a second and then the boys started in on Perry real good. You’d have thought the man had just murdered all their mothers the night before, the way those boys started groaning and wailing and berating poor Perry.
“You must be the biggest damn fool I ever met!” McGraw shouted at him. “Don’t you know it don’t take much to derail a cycle?”
“No, Coach, I can’t say as I ever heard that before.”
“Well, now you have. So let’s all clam up about it and finish the game like nothin’s happening.” He walked across the dugout as if shards of glass were cracking and crumbling under his feet and he placed his hands on Rock’s shoulders. “Now, Clean-Livin’, I’m sorry about all that. Don’t mind the distraction. Just get on out there and do what you do.”
Clean-Livin’ smiled that million dollar smile of his and came damn close to bursting out laughing directly in McGraw’s face. But he held back the hysterics and instead said, “Don’t worry, Coach. I was wondering what the heck I had to do to get some notice ‘round here anyways. Now, you better believe I’m gonna go out there and do what I do. And I’ll even go one better. I promise each and every one of you on this bench tonight that I’ll finish what’s started. I’ll finish that cycle for all you guys…and, of course, for my ‘Lizbeth. I’ll need some kinda story to tell her when I get home tonight.” The boys all got quite a kick out of this last statement, as ironic as it’d turn out to be.
Course irony, and cruel irony at that, seemed to be taking over during this particularly bitter cycle in Rock’s life away from the ball field. Couldn’t have been more than a week after Jimmy and Agnes were returned to him that another bump in the road was revealed.
I happened to be walking up Locust Street on my way to the colliery one morning. Light was barely rising overhead, but there was a steady stream of men in their coveralls, carrying small pails stuffed with the pierogies and summer sausages and dried deer jerky they’d be eating for lunch. I only got a few doors down from my house when I was startled by a window sash swinging open.
“Eddie!” It was Clean-Livin’ and he looked about as pale and listless as a twice-dead ghost. “Go get Dr. Henrich, Eddie! Quick!” I could tell he was in a fair bit of distress so I didn’t waste time with any questions. I just ran down to Doc’s as fast as my legs would carry me and I pounded my fists so hard on the man’s door when I got there that he came out on the porch with a fully locked and loaded shotgun in hand.
“Oh, it’s just you, Eddie,” he said. “What is it son?”
I told him about Clean-Livin’ looking like the walking dead and hanging out the window screaming for help. Doctor Henrich didn’t bother getting dressed into his work clothes. He just grabbed his black medical bag and ran out the door wearing nothing but a set of flannel pajamas. I hustled after him and waited outside on the porch in case I was needed. Doc tromped clumsily up the stairs.
“It’s Agnes. Look at her Doc. Please do something for her!”
“Stay calm now, Rockford. Let me examine her. No need for hysterics just yet.”
“You tell me to stay calm? I can’t lose her too, Doc! You know that. Doc, it can’t be like ‘Lizbeth, Doc. Please Doc—“ And then I heard the sound of flesh slapping flesh, and it was loud enough to make my own cheek feel the sting.
“Get a hold of yourself, dammit! For her, Rockford. Do it for her.” And then I heard nothing but silence, save the occasional rustle of sheets and heavy breath. I assumed Doc was finishing up his examination and I presumed a cooler head had prevailed for Clean-Livin’. But it amounted to the shortest-lived patch of calm I’d ever seen.
“Rockford, you better have a seat.” I heard one of Clean-Livin’s heavy, wooden chairs scrape across the floor. “Now, I’m real sorry to have to be the one to say this, son, but it appears as though it’s all in God’s hands at the moment. Seems the little angel has the same bout of influenza that had slashed right through the state of Pennsylvania. Probably picked it up at the orphanage. Could have picked it up anywhere though. Maybe even from her own, well—“
“What’s gonna happen, Doc?” He said it slowly and his voice shook as the words struggled to leave his lips.
“It’s not for me to say, Rockford. She could pull through without so much as a scratch. Or…”
“Or what?” The only answer to his question was silence. And then I heard weeping. It was the same hysterical bawling I remembered from back at the Bull’s Head during one of Clean-Livin’s fits. “I did this, Doc!” he screamed between sobs. “I did this!”
Standing on his porch and listening to the anguish spill forth from that man was enough to loosen a few tears from my eyes. I’m not ashamed to admit as much. I couldn’t help thinking what a damn shame it all was. Man walked right off the pinnacle one night and fell straight into a bottomless pit.
See, he did come up to bat in the bottom half of the ninth in that game we were discussing. You know, Clean-Livin’s last? There were two outs, the bases were empty and the score was knotted at three. We all knew what was riding on his at-bat, and so did Rock, but you’d never have known it by the way he calmly walked up to the plate. If you’d have stuck a newspaper under his arm and a brown derby on his head you would have thought he was taking his customary stroll down Locust Street. And then he just stood there in the box with the bat at his side. It was like he was daring the pitcher to throw it in there. And that pitcher accepted the dare. He tossed a fastball right down the middle of the plate and Clean-Livin’ never budged a single muscle, just kind of yawned a little as it popped the mitt.
We all shot each other little glances in the dugout cause we didn’t know what in the hell old Rockford was up to. And that pitcher looked in at us, and once again sized-up Clean-Livin’, who was still basically leaning on his bat. Then he wound up and threw the same pitch he’d just thrown moments before. Again, Rock didn’t budge as the ball swooshed past him, belt-high.
Well, as you can imagine, we were all starting to get a little restless at this point. The crowd wasn’t all that happy about Rock’s less-than-valiant effort, neither. They started booing, we started groaning, but all Rock could do was step out of the box and smile. That’s right. The sunuvabitch smiled. A big, old grin too. Then he looked in at all of us in the dugout, and we’re murmuring all sorts of indecent things, and he silenced us with a simple wink and a nod of his head.
Boy, the next time the pitcher tried to paint one across the plate old Clean-Livin’ took a mighty swing and sent that ball a country mile. Only man I ever saw complete the cycle with a walk-off home run. Heck, only man I ever saw complete a cycle in person.
That’s why I more than wished, as I stood waiting on Rock’s front porch that morning, that we could have turned the clock back a few weeks to that game, before everything evil started unfolding for the man. But I knew it wasn’t possible. I knew the silence above me was even more excruciating for Rock than I could ever understand. But I could never know his pain was about to grow worse as the silence lifted.
“Doc,” I heard Rock say frantically. “Doc, what’s happenin’?” No answer. “Doc, why is she shakin’ like that?” No answer. “Doc, help her! Doc!” No answer. And then just a pitiful cry like that of the war whoop Rock had rung out when they came to take his little ones away. And then I heard glass crashing and wood planks breaking and all manner of struggle upstairs.
“Rockford, you have to let her go!” I heard Doc Henrich yell at one point, but the crashing did not cease. And I knew it was all over, and that we’d never see the Clean-Livin’ we knew ever again.
But I’ll always remember Clean-Livin’ as I want to remember him. As his teammates, myself included, hoisted him up on shoulders and carried him off the field. As fans showered him with congratulations for completing a feat most players in the history of the game only dreamed of.
As he shuffled out of his uniform and replaced his customary suit and hat, barely able to hold back the excitement of being able to relay the news to his beautiful Elizabeth. As he let himself inside and deposited his coat and hat on the rack in the parlor, a smile from ear to ear. And then no further.
For this image suits Clean-Livin’ much better than the one I saw in reality. Much better than a drunk and raving man that smelled like a week’s worth of whiskey. Much better than a police carriage and a struggle to stuff a man inside against his will. Much better than a young son taken away by a town preacher intent on pointing out to passersby the obvious marks of the devil displayed in the father.
That wasn’t Clean-Livin’ at all. No, that was something else altogether.
TO BE CONTINUED
Come back next Thursday for Black Yarn part 5/10 – “GRIZZLY BEAR”