February 17, 1971Nick had turned the one-car garage into a gym. His mom didn’t mind. Her gray Chevy Nova sat in the driveway, Nick’s old Ford convertible at the curb in front of the house. A weight bench, barbells, and various free weights were stacked and racked around the cement floor of the garage. A bright blue two-inch thick mat provided for floor exercises.
Work every quadrant, top to bottom. Add weight. Add reps. Feel the burn, that good sweet burn.
There was one device not seen in other gyms. A heavy cord hung from a metal eyelet screwed into the ceiling. The cord ended in a large knot, the knot positioned about waist high.
Nick took the weighted bat he’d made, took his stance in an imaginary batters’ box, swung the bat and hit the knot at the end of the cord. The knot flew up and slapped the ceiling, then returned to its original position. Nick took his stance and swung again. Click went the bat against the knot. Whap went the knot against the ceiling. Click-Whap. Again and again.
Weight back, bat back, ready to stride. Quick hands. Quick wrists. Follow through. Balance, balance, balance all the way.
He’d added about eight ounces to the thirty-two-ounce bat by drilling holes in the barrel, melting lead fishing weights in a coffee can on a camp stove, and pouring the lead into the holes. He’d wrapped the barrel with white sports tape and his training tool was ready. Fifty good hard swings, then fifty more. Take a breather, then two more sets of fifty. Another breather, then two more sets. Three hundred swings in total. This was Nick’s regimen, and it worked because he believed in it, believed it developed his swing—added strength, added power, added distance.
Click-Whap. Click-Whap. Ya gotta believe!
Nick knew it was true long before Tug McGraw shouted it in the Mets' locker room.
It wasn’t an original idea. Nick’s dog-eared copy of The Boys of Summer sat on the desk in his bedroom, the chapter where Roger Kahn visits George “Shotgun” Shuba flagged with a bookmark. Shuba used a forty-two-ounce bat, six hundred swings a night, more than Nick could handle. But he was working on it, building up, adding reps.
You want five tools? You want power? Watch this, all you slackers!
Three hundred good, hard, balanced, competitive swings with a forty-ounce bat. Sweat poured from his body. When the weights and the swings were done, time to hit the streets for a run. Sweatpants, a sweatshirt, a rubberized warm-up jacket to protect against the cold and work up a good lather, a towel tucked around his neck. Three, maybe three and a half miles. Every night accounted for. Workouts on even-numbered nights, recovery on the odds.
Gettin’ stronger. Gettin’ ready. Gettin’ ready to play.
Nick only talked to himself when he worked out. Day in, day out, people took him for a quiet, soft-spoken guy. It was only here, in Mom’s garage and out on a run, that he went a little nuts.
Best shape of my life. I’m ready. Are you ready for Nick Shane?
March 8, 1971Weed abatement duty was no picnic. It was wet, cold, nasty work. Wet and cold because of the March weather, nasty because Nick had his suspicions about the stuff they were spraying on vacant lots and fields. Was it hazardous to your health?
Nick and Marty soldiered on, out in the weather except for the days when rain drove them inside. They wore long-johns under their jeans, with several layers above the belt that could be peeled away if the sun came out. They’d been issued rubber boots that covered their pantlegs up to the knee, and rubber gloves to prevent contact with the herbicide. The material needed extended contact with the emerging grass and weeds, at least a day or so, or the rain could wash it away and their work would be wasted. But the rains relented in March, most storms staying well to the north, so they plunged on with their routine. Fill the tank with water from a fire hydrant. Dump in the required sacks of the powdered weed killer. Activate the paddle mechanism in the tank that kept the mixture stirred. Consult their book of maps for the next area to be sprayed. And repeat, again and again.
It was Friday and not a moment too soon. Nick was ready for the weekend. They parked the spray rig in the corporation yard, changed out of their wet clothes in the locker shed, and headed for the parking lot. The tables were reversed tonight: Nick was giving Marty a ride home.
“Nick, can we swing by Sibley’s place? I want to check on something. Only take a minute.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Nick turned left off Georgia Street and into Sibley’s neighborhood. As they approached the house she shared with a roommate, Nick felt Marty tense beside him.
“Sonofabitch! That goddamn—”
Nick turned to Marty. “What? What’s the problem?”
“See that Cadillac parked at the curb? That’s the problem.”
A late-model Caddy sedan, its black paint polished to a high gloss, sat in front of Sibley’s house.
Marty laughed. “She’s forgetting something—I still have the key.” He dangled a house key for Nick to acknowledge.
Marty was out of the car and running for the front door before Nick came to a full stop. He shut off the engine, rolled down the window and leaned back in the seat, too tired to care about Marty’s troubles, whatever they might be. He closed his eyes and relaxed. His eyelids felt heavy.
Sibley’s front door flew open and man ran out onto the front porch, buck naked, struggling to get into a pair of white underpants. He managed to get both feet into the tidy whities and pulled them up to cover his privates. He ran for the Cadillac but found the door locked.
Marty appeared at the front door, his arms overflowing with clothes—what looked like a suit, shirt, sox, and shoes. The guy in the undies took off on a dead run down the sidewalk, turned right at the corner and disappeared. Marty shook the suit jacket, then the pants, letting the contents spill out onto the lawn. He picked up a wallet and threw it onto the roof of the house, followed by a set of keys, then a pair of brown oxfords, first the left, then the right.
Sibley came out onto the porch wearing a short terrycloth robe, tied at the waist. “You’re a bastard, Marty.” Her voice rang down the street for all the neighbors to hear. “A real bastard. I’ll date anybody I want. I’m calling the police. Hear that, Marty? The police.” She spun around and ran back into the house.
Marty opened the passenger door and jumped in. “Let’s go, Nick. Our work here is done.” Now Marty's laughter echoed through the neighborhood.
Nick gunned the mighty V8, popped the clutch and heard the wheels scream as he tore away from the curb. No need to wait around for the police to arrive. He started to ask, So, how are things with Sibley? But Marty was too busy laughing to listen.
May 7, 1971Mike Bouchka’s retirement party was set for early May. He’d made it to full-pension status, thanks to Gus and the entire crew. Gus reserved the large meeting room at Terry’s Restaurant out on Magazine Street, near the freeway. It would be a simple affair—a no-host cocktail hour, dinner, a few speakers, some parting gifts, and old Mike would be on his way. That was the plan.
Nick dressed in his best suit, happy to find it still fit. He thought about a tie, but decided that was too formal. An open-collared button-down shirt would fit the bill.
Cocktail hour was off to a rollicking start, a bar set up on either side of the room, two bartenders busy at each station, mixing drinks, opening bottles. There was a sudden commotion at the door. Nick turned to see Marty enter with Sibley on his arm.
Surprise! They’d made up. Nick recalled the last time he’d seen Sibley and he smiled.
The handsome couple made a grand entrance, though no one was looking at Marty. Sibley wore a form-fitting black cocktail dress, the hem cut just above the knee. The scooped neckline featured her exquisite cleavage. Her accessories included gold earrings and a necklace that Cleopatra would have loved. This was a generous gift on Sibley’s part, because it allowed all the men to look down and say, “Oh my, what a lovely necklace.” Not a man-jack among them could tell you the color of her eyes. (A warm milk-chocolate with gold flecks, by the way.)
It seemed the room had tipped and spilled all the men toward Sibley. Chaos threatened for a moment and Nick was afraid Marty was going to have to punch a few noses. Then Dory Bouchka came to the rescue. She made her way through the crowd, greeted Sibley warmly, took her by the hand and began to introduce her to old friends. Civility was restored.
Nick and Marty found a table and claimed three seats. Nick would sit on Sibley’s left, Marty on her right, thus providing some protection from the guys coming by to admire her necklace.
The waitstaff began to file out of the kitchen, delivering salads to each table. The dinner choices were steak and baked potato, or baked chicken breast and mashed potatoes; steak for the red ticket holders, chicken for the blue. Large bottles wine, both red and white, were delivered to each table, proudly displaying the Italian-Swiss Colony label, courtesy of an anonymous benefactor. It was all good, so long as you liked your steak medium and your chicken dry. As the dinner dishes were taken away and coffee cups refilled, the program got underway, Joe Jacoby acting as master of ceremonies. Joe had several new jokes to share, duly scrubbed so as not to offend sensitive ears. Thanks to cocktail hour and Italian-Swiss Colony’s little old winemaker, the crowd was ready to laugh. Joe did not let them down.
At the head table with Mike and Dory, Nick was surprised to see Mayor Florence Douglas, quite an honor for Mike. Madam Mayor made a few remarks, thanked Mike for his service to the country and the City, then spent ten minutes extolling the wonderfulness of Vallejo. The Director of Public Works (Nick missed his name in Joe’s intro) came to the podium to present Mike with his retirement check. Short and sweet.
Gus rose to a rousing ovation—clapping, foot stomping, hoots and whistles. Again, short and sweet—Gus, as always, a man of few words. He presented Mike with a gold shovel, like those used in groundbreaking ceremonies. And then the gift from the entire crew: round-trip tickets on United Airlines to Chicago so that Mike and Dory could visit Mike’s mother. Nick shook his head in wonder. Mike’s mom, now in her late eighties, was alive and well, living on the South Side.
Now it was time for the keynote. Joe introduced Dory Bouchka to a polite round of applause. A large screen was moved into place and Dory proceeded to present a slide show, photos dating back to Mike’s childhood. No surprise to Nick, Dory was warm and funny, quite poignant at times. The chronology reached their wedding day, and there was Mike in his full-dress Navy uniform, a Chief’s stripes on his arm; and Dory, beautiful in a lacy white gown. Nick saw the young Mike, ramrod straight and full of vigor, and a lump formed in his throat. Life can be cruel to the human body. Dory was nearing the end now, but there was one more slide that Nick was not prepared for. It flashed up on the screen and he caught his breath.
“Nick Shane?” Dory looked around the room until she found him. “There you are. Nick, Mike tells me this is a picture of your dad.”
Nick raised his hand and nodded to Dory. There in the photo were Mike and Nick’s father, Mike holding a pool cue, Dad holding a long-neck bottle of Budweiser, both wearing their American Legion Post 104 caps and grinning at the camera. Nick smiled and blinked back tears.
Dory asked for the projector to be powered down. She had something to say and she commanded their attention.
“There is something Mike and I need to tell you, all of you who worked with him through the years. We know what you did. We know the extra work you took on so that we can stand here today. We know it wasn’t easy, or even fair to all of you. But we will never forget the kindness and love you’ve shown. From the bottom of our hearts, we say Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.”
Dory left the podium and returned to her seat, bathed in silence. Then slowly, a few at a time, people began to stand and clap their hands, until the entire room was standing. The ovation continued for several minutes.
The party wound down slowly. The bartenders had shut down as dinner was being served and most of the wine had been dispatched. And yet folks lingered, reluctant to see the night end.
Nick said his goodbyes and made his way to the parking lot. A heavy case of the blues came over him. He thought about Donna. God, how he wished she was there beside him, holding his hand.
May 22, 1971May 20 marked Nick’s twenty-first birthday. He didn’t feel like celebrating. The blues from the night of Mike’s retirement party clung to him like flypaper. His mom insisted on some sort of observance, some recognition of the milestone, and so she planned a special dinner for the evening of Saturday, May 22. Ella, Nick’s sister, would drive in from San Francisco, and Grady would stop by later in the evening to help blow out the candles.
Lucille Shane shopped at the commissary on the shipyard and brought home a lovely sirloin tip roast. She would whip up her much-admired mashed potatoes with pan gravy, along with a nice green salad, and of course, chocolate devil’s food cake for dessert.
As they finished their cake and coffee, Grady insisted on taking Nick out for one quick drink, now that they were both of legal age and no longer needed their fake ID’s. Grady practically ran to the car. He had something up his sleeve. He even held the door open for Nick, then jumped behind the wheel and made a beeline for the 714 Club, a working-class bar on Benicia Road near the freeway.
Nick nursed his drink at the bar while Grady excused himself to make a call from the pay phone in the back. He returned, took his stool, and grinned at Nick.
“Okay, buddy. I called the not-so-secret number and gave the not-so-secret password. The car from Glen Cove is on the way to pick us up. It’s my treat in honor of your birthday.”
“Ah, Grady…geez…I don’t know man—” Nick hadn’t anticipated this surprise.
“Come on, Nick. Can’t back out now. The car is on the way.” Grady couldn’t suppress a laugh.
A few minutes later, Maisie, the gray-haired black woman who drove the pick-up car for the Glen Cove brothel, stuck her head in the door of the bar. Grady smiled and waved to catch her attention. The boys followed her to the car, an old Chevy sedan that was well known around town. A favorite sport among high school kids was to follow Maisie on her rounds, honking their horns as she loaded customers into the vehicle. Thankfully, there were no followers tonight.
When they arrived at the old mansion, out in the rolling hills surrounded by grazing land, Nick tried to point out the sections along the drive where he and his workmates had performed repairs. But it was a moonless night, no way to admire the work.
They didn’t have to wait long inside. Business was transacted quickly, Nick chose a girl with a nice smile and followed her up the stairs to a private room. It quickly became clear that his heart, among other things, wasn’t into it.
“Mind if we just talk?” Nick was apologetic.
“Sure, honey. It’s your dime.” She flashed that nice smile again.
And talk they did—about life, love, work, plans for the future, favorite movies, books. It turns out the young lady was a fan of Emily Dickinson. She recited two poems from memory—the one that begins, There’s a certain slant of light, / On winter afternoons…, and then her all-time favorite, Ample make this bed / Make this bed with awe… Her eyes were shining as she finished. Nick was touched by her love for the Belle of Amherst.
An hour later, as he made his way back down the stairs, he knew Grady would want a full accounting. Should he make up a good story? Nah. He decided on the plain, unvarnished truth.
They were on their way back to the 714 Club, Maisie at the wheel, when Grady asked the question. “Okay, Nick. Tell me about it. I want a blow-by-blow description.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, pal. Nothing happened.”
“What?” Grady was shocked. “What do you mean ‘nothing happened’?”
“I mean nothing happened. The elevator was down.” Maisie laughed softly.
“Ah, man. No elevator?”
“Nope. Down in the basement. Couldn’t even get to the first floor.” Nick glanced at Maisie and saw her shoulders shaking.
“Wait a minute… Did she push all the buttons?” Grady wasn’t buying Nick’s story.
“Yep. But it was no use. A total power outage.”
Grady mulled it over for a moment. “So…what did you do?”
“We talked. Turns out she’s a big fan of Emily Dickinson. Recited a couple of poems for me.”
“Oh crap. So, I paid for a poetry recital in a cathouse?”
“Hey, don’t feel bad, buddy. It was very nice. I had a great time.”
It was quiet for a minute while Grady thought it over. “You know what? I think we have song here. We’ll call it, “The Elevator Blues.”
Maisie could not contain herself. She burst out laughing. The three of them went to work putting together verses for the song. As they rolled down Benicia Road, the first verse came together with ease:
Down in the basement with those elevator bluesGot a power outage, don’t know what to do
Pushed all the buttons but it ain’t no use
So, I’m stuck in the basement with those elevator blues…
There were more verses, some better than others. They pulled up in front of the 714 Club and finished with a grande fortissimo:
SO, I’M STUCK IN THE BASEMENT WITH THOSE ELEVATOR BLUUUES!!!
It was a birthday Nick would never forget.