(This story is a continuation of last week’s story, “Opening Game of Baseball Season – Stories From Rode Apple Junction“)
Shank Returns to His Old Hang-Out
Shank stayed at Duke’s place, a farm west of town on Muddy Creek Road, for a few days. The old championship team got together for a few laughs and beers at the Side Track Inn. They had a barbeque at Gibby Gephart’s, the shortstop.
Before Shank left town he stopped at the Jittery Goat Cafe to have a coffee and take a look at the old place. In Shank’s high school days, Clyde Pixler, Clem’s Dad ran the place. Shank spent a lot of time there. Besides the ball diamond The Jittery Goat Cafe held as many memories as anyplace else. He kissed his first girl, Charlotte Schweiterman, at age fifteen in the corner booth. A month later that’s where she broke his heart when he saw her kiss Joe Hodges. Then before he and Joe was about to have it out over Charlotte they both saw her kissing Buford Farnsworth. Wasn’t long before there were enough boys to start a chartered high school club, nothing official, of course, just boys swapping stories and mending broken hearts.
“What can I get ya?” Clem said as Shank sat at the bar.
“Coffee with a touch of cream,” Shank said.
Clem got the coffee and sat it in front of Shank. Clem left Shank alone. He got three scoops of cherry ice cream and sprinkled some crushed cinnamon heart candy over the top and topped with a cherry. Shank did not watch. He blew on his coffee and sipped. Clem slid the bowl of cherry ice cream sprinkled with crushed red cinnamon hearts topped with a cherry in front of Shank.
“That’s what Mr. Pixler used to serve me for free when nobody else was around.”
“Mr. Pixler was my Dad. He called it the ‘Heart Break Special.'”
“Do you know why?”
“I could never figure it out. Only the old timers order it.”
Shank smiled, “It’s a long story and a girl’s reputation may be involved. Is he still living?”
“No, he died in ’89.”
“People always say that like it’s not supposed to happen, but if he hadn’t died he’d be one hundred and two now.”
“I guess you’re right, but I had to say something.”
“Maybe I should be a bit more mannerly and just say, ‘Thanks.’”
“No, that’s okay.”
Why Shank Never Returned to Rode Apple Junction
“Curiosity is eating me up Shank, where have you been. Everybody took you for dead.”
Shank spooned a plentiful portion ice cream into his mouth. He closed his eyes and savored the concoction. “That’s so good. I’ve tried this at home and at least fifty other places in my lifetime, but nothing taste like this.”
“It’s all home-made. We’ve made it that way for as long as I can remember.”
“You don’t know how many times I wanted to come back.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I thought if I came back with anything less than what was expected from me I would be labeled a failure.”
“Shank, we here in Rode Apple Junction may be petty and small-minded, but we expect failure as a natural consequence of life. We celebrate it. There’s no place like this. Sure, we talk about that state championship team in ’61, but if ya want to get a real conversation goin’ ya talk about the ’94, ’95, ’96 football team. They never won a game. In those three years we never scored a touchdown. We’re proud of those boys. It takes courage to go out there and play your best knowing you’re going to get beat. It’s a life lesson. Life is full of expectations unrealized. We don’t have drugs, suicides, crime, or divorce because there is no expectation beyond who you are.”
“Where I live now that makes absolutely no sense at all, but to me right now it does.”
“What happened when you left?”
“I showed up at the ball park in Bakersfield at ten in the morning after a three-day ride and no sleep on a Greyhound Bus. I was in uniform at twelve. They stuck me in the last inning with only three warm-ups in the bullpen. I pitched to three guys and got them all out. I struck out the last guy on three pitches. Over the next week the coaches worked with me to change my delivery. They said it was awkward and funny and that those guys I got out laughed themselves into outs. After another month I was 0-6. I sat in the bullpen for two weeks without being put in a game. They called me in when our last pitcher twisted his ankle. We were tied and the other team had two on and one out. I came in and pitched the way that was natural to me. I threw six pitches striking out the remaining batters. I walked straight to the showers, changed, and hitch hiked to LA. I found out a few days later that Bakersfield won the game the bottom of the ninth, giving me my only professional win.”
“You been in Los Angles all this time?”
“I ended up going to college and getting a doctorate in psychology. My practice reads like a who’s who in Hollywood. And now after all those years of helping the wayward find their way I want to find mine.”
A Place Where You Can be Yourself Without Being Someone Else
“What’s wrong with Rode Apple Junction?” Clem asked.
“You can never go home,” Shank said. “You have heard that haven’t you? People change. I’ve changed.”
“You came here looking for something,” Clem said.
Shank smiled politely and returned to the ‘Heart Break Special.’ Clem walked over to the coffee and poured a cup. He returned and said, “What?”
“What?” Shank said confused.
“What are you looking for?” Clem said.
Just then ten year old Brandon Wilhelm came in. He was holding a baseball and walked up to Shank. “Excuse me sir, but my Dad told me there was a famous baseball player here and he told me to come and get his autograph. Is that you?”
Shank smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s me. Let me see the ball.” Shank took the ball and Clem handed him a pen. Shank signed it and handed it back to Brandon.
Brandon looked at it. He was confused. “What does it say?”
“Shank Hortsman,” Shank said.
“Is that you?” Brandon said.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Shank said.
“Oh I was looking for someone famous,” Brandon said. “But thanks anyway.” Brandon walked out the door.
The smile faded from Shank’s face. He looked at Clem.
Clem smiled broadly, “This is a place where somebody is nobody and nobody is somebody. If that ain’t what you’re lookin’ for you clearly don’t belong here.”
Shank stirred the ice cream a bit. “Do you know a woman about my age named Charlotte Schweiterman?”
“No, can’t say that I do, but there was a Charlotte Carpenter, she moved to Decatur years ago. I think that was her name. Had a half-dozen kids by five different husbands.
“That’s got to be her,” Shank said.