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Some holidays invent themselves. One example is September 17th, which is the birthday of John Franco, the former Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Mets All-Star Closer. Although I was never a Francophile, I have celebrated his birthday every year since 1985, when I met him at Shea Stadium: the Big Shea. I do so by eating a big pretzel, shotgunning a bottle of Miller Lite, and toasting him with four words: “Ba fongool, John Franco,” which roughly translates into, “Up your ass, John Franco.” Since that time, September 17th has come to be known as “Bafongool Day” in my house.
My interaction with Franco has led me to believe that T.S. Eliot had a point when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” I was at Shea Stadium, the Big Shea, watching the Mets play the Cincinnati Reds, which is to say that I was there to see the legendary Reds’ player-manger Pete Rose inch closer to surpassing Ty Cobb as Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader. I was chomping at the bit to see Rose do it, as he had long been one of my favorite ballplayers, and I wanted to witness a watershed moment in the game’s history.
A die-hard New York Yankees fan, my father surprised me with a pair of tickets a
few days before the game, which had been sold out for weeks. I was hella amped, going so far as to buy a Reds cap and a baseball for Rose to sign. Our seats were in the right field upper deck, or “Nosebleed East,” as my father called them, where we had a better view of Big Shea’s parking lot behind the outfield fence than the playing field. Once my father started chatting up the people sitting beside us, I grabbed my ball and got up to leave. It was go time, as in time to go meet Rose, Major League Baseball’s soon-to-be career hits king.
“Don’t take any shit off that Commie bastard,” my father said. “And get me some
peanuts while you’re at it. Two bags.”
I inched my way down the network of escalators, through the crowd at the
concession and souvenir stands, to the gate that accessed the visitor’s dugout. There was no usher, so I ran down the field level tunnel.
Then a bony finger tapped my shoulder. “Ticket, please.”
The finger belonged to a short, stocky usher, whose name “Al” seemed to shout
from his name tag. With his olive-skin and dashing moustache, he reminded me of my
“Your ticket, please,” Al said.
I reached for my stub and handed it to him. It was wrapped in a twenty-dollar bill.
“Please may I go down to the dugout?”
“Okay, little man. Be my guest,” Al said. “For ten more dollars.”
“That’s right. Unless you want me to call security.”
To my pubescent mind, the chance to see Rose play in person occurred with
Halley’s Comet-like frequency. Plus, I had no interest in dealing with any variety of the PoPo or my father’s reaction to such a turn of events, which would not be pleasant. I gave him the ten.
“Okay, little man,” Al said, pressing buttons on his wristwatch. “You got 10
minutes. My colleagues and I will come and get you if you don’t leave on your own.
He led me to the front row seats adjacent to the visitor’s dugout. I joined a group
of 50 or so people. I was at the left end of the row, watching the sea of players, the umpiring crew, newspaper reporters and broadcast journalists. I wondered about how many benjamins Al had scored.
Then Rose emerged from the dugout. He grinned as he walked over to the fence,
where a forest of hands holding out baseballs, photographs, yearbooks, and pens awaited him. My heart was beating on the roof of my mouth, but I summoned the courage to speak. This was my chance to put my money where my aorta was.
“Hello, Mr. Rose. I know that you’re busy at the moment, but please may I have
your autograph? I hope you get closer to breaking Ty Cobb’s record today.”
“So, ya want my autograph, do ya?” Rose asked.
He fixed his glare on my Reds cap. He seemed to be scrutinizing it, as if it was
evidence—exhibit C, so to speak—at a murder trial.
Then he rolled his eyes. My knees knocked. “Get lost.”
My heart slid down my throat. I watched in disbelief as Rose sauntered back into
Al poked my shoulder blade. “Y’know,” he said, “I’ll give you five more minutes
to hang here, if you want.” It felt like a stick-up.
I reached for my wallet. “Fuggedaboutit. On the house,” he said. “Lookit. Maybe
he changed his mind.”
Rose re-emerged, and walked to first base. He turned his attention toward the
batting cage, where the Reds players were taking pre-game swings. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s “On the Dark Side” crackled from Big Shea’s PA system.
By the time Michael Antunes’ rollicking saxophone solo sprayed the infield dirt, I
became alerted to presence of the Reds pitchers Jay Tibbs and John Franco. They stood about two feet behind Rose and faced the crowd, which struck me as unusual. Most ballplayers I had seen in person would barely acknowledge the fans before a game, save a quick wave or greeting. Their arms were akimbo, and the looks in their eyes suggested that they meant business, even though people in the crowd were clamoring for their attention. With their red satin warm-up jackets and careful, steady gaits and stillness, Tibbs and Franco reminded me of a big league baseball version of the Emperor’s Royal Guard in Return of the Jedi, and their message was implicit: Palpatine Rose was not to be disturbed or harassed.
“Lookit, there’s John Franco,” Al said. “If Rose won’t give you an autograph,
maybe John will.”
Franco swaggered towards the fence. “Hey, John,” Al shouted. “Come stai? How
The crowd went insane. Arms reached out like weeds as Franco reached the
stands. He might have been on an opposing team, but having been born and raised in
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and a star ballplayer at Lafayette High School and St. John’s
University, he was a local product who had succeeded in his chosen profession. Franco’s success gave fans like Al and other New York baseball fans of Italian lineage sense of hope, that talent and persistence could enable people to rise above their working-class roots and leave their old neighborhoods; their ghetti permanently and live la dolce vita, rather than spend the rest of their days relegated to a life of work and responsibility.
Franco smiled and slapped some of the fans’ hands. Then it occurred to me that
my father just might like having a baseball autographed by Franco. I thought that it would be a way of reciprocating his kindness; of expressing my gratitude for him getting tickets to the game and spending the day at Big Shea with me, especially given his Yankees fandom. I resolved to ask Franco for his John Hancock as soon as he came to where I was standing.
“Hello, Mr. Franco. Welcome back to the city. Please may I have your
Franco’s smile curled into a smirk. Then he snickered, and looked me straight in
“Go fuck yourself, kid,” he said.
My jaw dropped. I understood that signing autographs was Franco’s—or any
ballplayer’s prerogative, but his sui generis combination of nonchalance and
douchebaggery flabbergasted and saddened me.
Then I felt something graze the back of my neck. I looked around: it was an
enormous gold crucifix, which dangled like a legless puppet from the chain worn by a fan standing directly behind me.
“You’ll never be the man yo momma is, Franco,” Legless Puppet said with
blaringly nasal, leather-lunged disdain. “Bafongool!”
Franco’s smirk curled into a sneer. He looked straight at Legless Puppet and I saw
his left hand, his pitching hand, curl into a fist. Tibbs motioned to Rose, who in turn motioned to the police officers gathered by the Mets dugout, and then preceded to walk Franco back into the visitor’s dugout, slowly and calmly.
“Sorry it didn’t work out, little man,” Al said. “Enjoy the game.”
My stomach gurgled. I walked up the steps, and then stopped when I got to the
exit of the tunnel. I watched Al work. A bald-headed man, a silver-haired woman and a little girl walked up to him. He inspected their tickets. Then he shook the little girl’s hand and led the group to their seats, where the adults shared a laugh as they blended into the rest of the crowd seated in the field level section.
I made my way to the nearest concession stand and purchased two bags of
peanuts and a big pretzel. People rushed by, arms full of sepia-colored paper trays filled with cheeseburgers and hot dogs; large and small cups of Pepsi-Cola, knishes, and french-fries. I chewed my pretzel and stared at the escalators, teeming with men, women, children, and orange foam fingers, the sun glinting off of aviator sunglass lenses, Swatches, and plastic blue Mets batting helmets, the sour smell of Miller Lite melting the cartilage in my nose as tiny hail-stones of salt dissolved on my tongue.
I handed the bags of peanuts to my father and showed him the baseball upon my
return. He looked at me with a furrowed brow, but asked no questions. All of my
subsequent recollections of the game are a list of curiosities: pain darting through my abdomen; the American flag, flaccid on the pole behind the centerfield wall; the moan of airplanes coming and going above Big Shea; the right field corner of the upper deck bathed in shadow.
Joey Nicoletti’s most recent books are Thundersnow (Grandma Moses Press, 2017) and Reverse Graffiti (Bordighera, 2015). He holds degrees from the University of Iowa, New Mexico State University, and Sarah Lawrence College. A former Poetry Editor of Sou’wester,Joey lives in Grand Island, New York, where he runs around with his cat, dogs, and watches copious amounts of baseball.
TM: Does the location of Oklahoma in “Balloon Animals” hold any significance to you?
LW: The location itself is an extension of my small town roots, in East Texas. There is a kind of palpable desolation in the podunk of my youth. While some folks feel an incredible warmth in these tiny places, I always experience a sort of vertigo, possibly born of my fear as a child that I might not be able to ever get out, or escape my fate. It’s strange though, because I also experience tremendous inspiration when I go back. It’s a conflict many writers experience, I believe. Charlie is haunted by the smallness of his life, trapped by his own unfulfilled expectations. I believe the setting mirrors that.
TM: Is there any of yourself in the main character Charlie?
LW: There is a lot of Charlie in me. As a writer, I have always struggled with the concept of currency. What does my passion offer this world, or my family? We as artists are all in a struggle to answer this question. Each time someone asks us how much we make, monetarily, with our art, we are faced with the reality that our answer will never measure up in today’s dollars. We have to find our currency in other ways, and surround ourselves with those that understand and support our passions regardless.
TM: Do these characters reflect people in your own life?
LW: Mira is very much a reflection of my two daughters as children. They had this ethereal nature that touched everyone around them. Natalie has a lot of my wife in her as well, with her strength, loyalty, and unwavering support.
TM: How does your history of being a marine veteran affect your writing?
LW: My Marine Corps experiences are ubiquitous in my writing and life in general. I wear them like a second skin. I think most veterans, regardless of service branch, undergo a similar metamorphosis of thought and being, unique to their individual experiences, of course. For me, the Marines made me aware of a certain type of hyper-humanity. I witnessed the human condition in overdrive. While it can be terrifying to see, first hand, what we are capable of as a species, it is also fascinating, and inspiring. And from a character development standpoint, my military service has been a boundless wellspring.
TM: When the Second Madonna is ruined and Charlie takes his anger out on the Tweety balloon, were the emotions conveyed there a result of something in your life?
LW: This comes back to the earlier concept of currency- this pressure to create something that will not just be accepted, but also pay the bills. That buildup of tension, and it’s violent release in the story, came from a very real place in my own life and the weight of the constant, personal rejection we all must face in order to do this thing we do: to write, to create, to bare ourselves. Charlie snaps, plain and simple, and it was incredibly gratifying on a primal level. I would be lying if I said I wrote it with all of that, or hell, any of it really, in mind, but I can’t deny it’s there when I see it retrospectively.
The story itself was born of Chekhov’s gun, the dramatic concept that if you have a gun in a story, it must go off before the end. For me, that meant creating a palpable anticipation, an unspoken momentum, that would carry the story forward. As soon as the balloon, with its fragility, is introduced, the reader knows, on some level, that it can’t survive the story. If it does, the reader will feel cheated. The rest of the story, the real connections the characters make, and the tendrils they have to my own experience, just somehow found their way in and flowed along. I was just lucky enough to have been there for it.
Despite “Balloon Animals” being a short story, there is a lush and detailed backstory to the characters. How did these backstories come about? And why were they chosen for this story?
This is the one area of the story that was more work than inspiration. Initially, Natalie’s story was not nearly as fleshed out. I’m lucky enough to be a part of a community of writers, the Peaxdunque Writers Alliance, and they pointed out the fact that Natalie’s character and backstory was so vital to Charlie’s motivations. This seems an obvious fact in retrospect. I think we all do this, especially in short stories. We focus on our main character to the detriment of all else. Without proper development and page space however, supporting characters can be nothing more than plot devices. In order for Natalie to truly understand the depth of Charlie’s loss, she has to have experienced her own. She lost her dreams long ago, and whatever chance she might have had for a second chance she sacrificed for her family. That kind of love and loyalty frame Charlie’s self-awareness and humility, in the end.
Tagen McCabe is a Senior at Buffalo State College for a Major in Writing. He has a part-time job at Committed Home Care taking care of family and plans to write fantasy, modern fantasy, and science fiction stories in the future. In his free time, or just when he is being particularly lazy, he spends time playing video games or browsing YouTube. On Saturday nights, he dedicates his time to Dungeons and Dragons with friends.
Larry Wormington is a Dallas-based fiction writer and the editor of the Peauxdunque Review. He received his MFA from University of New Orleans and his BA from University of North Texas. His stories have appeared in Elm Leaves Journal, Harpur Palate, the New Orleans fiction anthology, Monday Nights, among others. He also has work coming out this fall in Redivider. He’s a Marine veteran and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. Professionally, he is a technical writer and a small business owner in the greater Dallas area. He and his Khaleesi have been married for 26 years and have four incredible children.
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