Secret Service agent Doyle Coldiron gets into hot water before you can say, "Just the facts, ma'am." Soon he's swept up in an outrageous flood of events in this cockeyed look at Washington life and at the confusing business of falling in love in the 1990s. "Among the wittiest American novelists writing today."--Joseph Heller, author of CATCH-22; "Run, don't walk, to your nearest store for NIGHT OF THE AVENGING BLOWFISH."--Milwaukee Journal.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)|
About the Author
John Welter began his writing career as a newspaper copy boy, buying cigarettes for the city editor. Since then he has worked as a reporter at newspapers in the Midwest and the South and published humor sketches in The Atlantic. His first book, Begin to Exit Here: A Novel of the Wayward Press, was widely praised and selected by Library Journal as a "Word of Mouth" recommendation for 1991. He lives in North Carolina, where he writes a humor column for The Chapel Hill Herald and is a manager for a mail-order company. He has never been a Secret Service agent, but sometimes wears dark glasses.
Read an Excerpt
You wouldn't know, by looking at us in our sunglasses, our somber dark suits, and carrying our concealed pistols and compact machine guns — meant to rapidly and coarsely dismantle the flesh of anyone threatening the life of the president — that we were sitting in the privileged sanctum of the White House planning a clandestine baseball game. We weren't supposed to be planning one. Agent-in-Charge Doltmeer was opposed to it, but that only meant we wouldn't let him play.
Without explanation, which frequently was how our lives progressed, someone put this flyer on the bulletin board at work:
First Annual Baseball Game between the CIA and the Secret Service.
Date: July 14
It was decided by senior members of the Service and the CIA that the rivalry between the two agencies could be furthered and settled in an annual baseball game.
It has been agreed that the game should be played covertly. The game will be played at night, without lights, to avoid letting the opposing team know where the game is.
Clues will be provided, to allow team members to locate the playing field and the game time. If only one team shows up, it wins. The winning team will be given a spookball trophy.
Sign up now, if you can find the sign-up sheet.
It seemed juvenile and a little stupid, so most of us liked it immediately. A few of the agents regarded it as nothing more than an excessively ludicrous joke, which maybe it was, but those of us who still had spontaneous glee in our hearts for no sensible reason badly wanted to play that game.
Anyone at all could have printed the flyer, meaning its authenticity was thoroughly unknown, but that was precisely the nature of what we and the CIA were all about: confronting the unknown. And, in some cases, inventing the unknown.
Doltmeer didn't think any of it was funny.
"Who put this crap up here?" he asked, as he looked at the flyer.
"I'll start an investigation immediately. Plus we'll need some uniforms and gloves," I said.
Doltmeer looked annoyed, but he usually looked annoyed, so I couldn't tell if he was annoyed by me or by the ordinary course of his life. He took the flyer from the bulletin board and folded it up, as if that would prevent us from remembering what it said.
"I'm not going to have my agents screwing around wasting time looking for a phantom baseball game," he said.
"We won't. We'll look for a real one," Widdiker said.
"What should we call our team?" Pascal asked.
"Jesus Christ," Doltmeer said wearily.
"That's not a good name for a team," Widdiker said.
"There's not going to be a team," Doltmeer said, with authority we didn't care about.
"Where's the sign-up sheet?" someone asked.
"We'll make our own."
"Isn't that cheating?"
"I think that's how you're supposed to play this game," Widdiker said.
"How can you see a ball at night without lights?" Pascal wondered.
"We could use phosphorus grenades," someone suggested.
"I think it would delay the game too much if you killed everyone in the infield."
"We'll need team jerseys," DeMarco said. "Should we have our names printed on them?"
"Of course not. We don't want the CIA to know who we are. We'll have fictitious names printed on our jerseys," Widdiker said. "They could be, like, the names of famous characters from books, like Tom Huck and Finn Sawyer."
"Goddamn it. This is an asinine waste of time," Doltmeer said.
"To you, perhaps. But to the rest of us it's a splendid waste of time," Widdiker said.
He seemed to be right. We could either waste our time huddled around the president, guarding him against the various assassins who routinely weren't there, or we could waste our time preparing for a baseball game that might not exist. There was no reason to choose one over the other. We could waste our time doing both.CHAPTER 2
Ideally, our highest professional and moral obligation was to concentrate solely on preventing assassins from killing the president or someone. Those were the two categories of people whose lives we were assigned to watch out for: A) the president; or B) someone. But most of the time no one had any interest in killing the president. Or someone. Hardly a day went by that dozens of people in all nations of the world secretly made no plans to kill the president. Uncounted millions of dollars were spent each year on the most lavish and extensive measures to guard the president from the myriad threats that weren't being made. So I think we had time for a baseball game.
Nine agents showed up Saturday for the covert spookball practice at an abandoned pasture in Maryland. The pasture wasn't abandoned at first. A farmer was there. We were wearing our new baseball jerseys and we told the farmer we were with the Secret Service.
"Why should I believe you?" the farmer said with polite suspicion.
"Offhand, there's no reason at all to believe us. But here's my U.S. Treasury ID," I said, showing him the ID in my wallet.
"Do you want to see one of our machine guns?" Yamato asked, like a boy willing to show someone his new bike.
"No," the farmer said.
"We'd just like to practice some baseball for a couple of hours, and this looks like a good field," Widdiker said.
"I didn't know the Secret Service played baseball," the farmer said.
"We do it all," Pascal said. "Protect the president and drive in runs."
We rented the pasture for twenty dollars. The farmer drove off on his tractor, thinking he now had something to do with national security.
We picked the remote pasture to prevent the CIA from finding us, although there was no reason to believe the CIA was looking for us. It still hadn't been proven that a baseball game was scheduled for July 14th, Bastille Day, but no one cared. It was strangely exhilarating to prepare for a game that might not be played. It was like religion. In both cases — religion and the spookball game — people were exuberant about the fantastic approach of something that might not be approaching. In religion, people awaited the afterlife. In spookball, we awaited the joy of being hit in the head by a baseball in the dark. So if it didn't happen, we faced less disappointment.
DeMarco, Oxler, and Yamato brought lawnmowers to get rid of the weeds and grass and small trees so we could practice. Everyone had guns. It was the only baseball team I knew of that could prevent or carry out assassinations. All of us had gone to sporting-goods stores or specialty shops to buy jerseys, none of which matched, and all of which had fictional names silk-screened on them. Widdiker's jersey had "Beowulf" on it.
"Who the fuck is Bee-o-wolf?" Deek asked.
"It's Bay-o-wolf, asshole," Widdiker said. "You guys don't know anything about world literature, do you? Beowulf was an eighth-century baseball player."
Deek's jersey said "Cervantes."
"Cervantes isn't a fictional name, dickhead," Pascal said. "Cervantes was a real person." And everyone began laughing at Deek.
"But the CIA probably hasn't heard of Cervantes, so that's all right, Deek," I said. "Besides, Cervantes is a wonderful name for a spookball player. Cervantes is famous for writing about people who looked for things that didn't exist."
On Pascal's jersey was the name "Bovary."
"Madame Bovary?" DeMarco said. "You're a woman?"
"Show 'im your dick," Widdiker advised.
"I don't want to see his dick," said DeMarco, on whose jersey was the name "Smerdyakov."
This puzzled everyone.
"Who the fuck is that?" Yamato wondered.
"Is it one of the Smurfs?" Oxler asked.
"Smerdyakov is some character from The Brothers Karamazov. But I don't know which character. I didn't read that book," DeMarco said.
"It's good to have Russian names. The CIA'll think we have players from the KGB," Widdiker said.
Oxler's jersey said "Caulfield," which he said came from a book by J. D. Salinger.
"Okay. You'll be the catcher, then," Horner said.
The name on Horner's jersey was a long one: "Miss Ophelia St. Clare." And, of course, we were mystified by it.
Pleased that we didn't know who it was, Horner said, "That's some old woman in Uncle Tom's Cabin."
"Now we've got two women on the team: Madame Bovary and Miss Ophelia St. Clare," Widdiker complained.
"What's wrong with having women on the team?" Horner said threateningly, as if, having taken a woman's name, he was now going to defend all women everywhere.
"We've got three women on the team," Yamato said happily, turning around so everyone could read the name on his jersey: "Dilsey."
"Who's Dilsey?" Widdiker asked.
"She's the Negro cook in William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury," Yamato said.
It was Jessup's turn to show off his silk-screened name: "Earwicker."
"And who, may I ask, the fuck is Earwicker?" Pascal said.
"I don't think you have to know," Jessup said haughtily. "This is a covert game."
"Oh come on. Who is it?"
"I'm not saying."
"We won't let you play if you don't tell us who you are," Oxler warned.
"All right. Earwicker is a character in Finnegan's Wake."
This didn't help.
"What's Finnegan's wake?"
"It's a wake they held for Finnegan."
"Jesus Christ, you guys are ignorant."
"Finnegan's Wake is this extremely long and difficult novel that practically no one understands. It's one of the most famous books in history that no one reads," Yamato said.
"So," Widdiker said, "you're named after a character that no one's heard of in a book no one reads. Impressive."
And then everybody looked at me to see what bizarre or obscure name I'd chosen for my jersey. I turned around to let them read my back.
"K?" several of them asked, with simultaneous puzzlement.
"I wanted a name that was easy to spell," I said.
"But K's not a name, goddamn it," DeMarco said.
"Yes, it is. K is the name of the main character in The Trial, by Franz Kafka," I said.
It seemed like everybody was pretty satisfied with our fictional names, and we began our practice by drinking cold beer. Widdiker, who arbitrarily decided he was the player-manager, tried to impose order and discipline.
"Okay. Everybody do wind sprints for five minutes," he said.
Modifying his plans, Widdiker began drawing up roster assignments, which he wrote on a clipboard for everyone to look at:
1st base: K.
2nd base: Madame Bovary.
3rd base: Miss Ophelia St. Clare.
4th base ...
He did that just for fun, then he crossed 4th base out.
Right field: Earwicker.
Center field: Dilsey.
Left field: Cervantes.
Now that the roster was set and everyone had had at least one beer, it was necessary to look at the playing field, and we realized no one had brought any chalk to mark the base paths. And there were no bases.
"Are we playing baseless ball?" Yamato asked.
"Gentlemen, this is spookball," Widdiker said. "We don't necessarily need base paths or bases. That way, when an opposing batter hits the ball, he won't know where to run."
"And we won't know where we're supposed to be on the field either, dumbshit," Oxler said.
Yamato and Horner and I went looking for rocks and things to use for the bases and the pitcher's plate. In the woods near a rutted dirt road, we found a discarded General Electric oven.
"Somebody help us carry this oven to first base!" I yelled. From back on the playing field we heard people saying "What?" and "Kiss my ass."
A little while later, Yamato yelled happily, "Look! Here's a sixty-foot cedar tree we can use for second base!"
"Will you guys quit screwing around?" someone yelled.
Next to a dried-up stream, Horner spotted something.
"Would it be okay if we used this dead raccoon for third base?" he asked. "No. Wait. I'm the third baseman. Never mind."
For several minutes we searched the woods, finding nothing that looked like bases or pitcher's plates.
"It makes you wonder how the prehistoric Indians played baseball," I said.
Tired of looking for stuff, we began grabbing whatever was nearby and walked back to the playing field with some substantial pieces of rotting trees.
"Those are our bases?" Widdiker said with contempt.
"Bases don't occur in nature. This is rotten wood," Yamato said, smiling as he and Horner and I positioned the wood in the approximate locations of the bases and the pitcher's plate.
"There," I said with satisfaction. "Is that stupid enough for everyone? Good."
With the field ready, everyone got another bottle of beer. Then we put our gloves on and walked out to our positions, almost as if by instinct or genetic predisposition — just naturally walked out into the field to precise, imaginary spots, making each of us feel remarkably peculiar for doing so after we got there. We were quiet and reflective, meditatively drinking our beer amid the generous sprawl of nature.
"Hey! I found a dinosaur bone!" Deek yelled from left field.
"Shut up," Widdiker instructed him from the pitcher's mound.
"What kind of dinosaur?" I yelled.
"Well, I'm not a philanthropist. I don't know."
"You mean a paleontologist."
"I'm not one of those, either."
We remained standing at our positions in the field, sipping our beers bucolically and looking at each other expectantly. Widdiker held the ball at the pitcher's plate, staring at Oxler, the catcher. It seemed likely that everyone was sharing a group insight — an important realization that grew and matured in the silence. I wondered who was going to say it first.
"Hey Beowulf," Horner called out from third base.
"Yes, Miss Ophelia?" Widdiker said.
"We don't have a batter."
"Thank you, Miss Ophelia."
No one else spoke; we remained at our positions, wiping sweat from our faces and drinking beer as we looked at each other wonderingly.
"How're we gonna practice without a batter?" Cervantes asked, and not as if he expected an answer.
"This is Zen baseball. We envision the batter," Dilsey said in center field.
"Envision my ass," Earwicker said.
"Envision my dick," Dilsey said.
"Hey. This is supposed to be a family game. Genitals aren't allowed."
"We could play Hindu baseball, and say we had a batter in one of our former lives," Madame Bovary said at second base.
"Time out," I called. "I think we need a conference on the pitcher's mound. And remember to scratch your crotch. Everyone, scratch your balls, except for Miss Ophelia and Madame Bovary and Dilsey."
We huddled around Widdiker at the pitcher's mound, which actually was a slight depression, since the field wasn't level.
"If this was a real game, someone would spit," Jessup said.
Deek spat. Then Horner and Pascal spat.
"Quit it," Widdiker said.
"Now someone should fart," Oxler said. "Who's the designated farter?"
"We don't do that in this league."
"I hafta piss," Deek said.
"Not on the pitcher's mound," Widdiker objected.
"This isn't a mound. This is a depression."
"Well, I didn't design the goddamn field now, did I?"
"Why'd you call time out, Doyle?" Pascal asked.
"I think we need a batter. I'll be the batter," I said.
"Then who'll cover first base?"
"I'll cover first base and be the batter," I said. "If I get a hit, I'll run to first base and tag myself out. Then I get to be the batter again."
"That's cheating," Pascal said.
"I think we agreed at the start that cheating was going to be our basic approach," Widdiker said. "The rule is: anyone who isn't caught cheating will be ejected from the game."
WHEN THE practice was over and a few of us went to the Nevermore Bar & Grill in our new baseball jerseys, hoping that women we'd never met before would be attracted to men wearing shirts that said Beowulf and Dilsey and Miss Ophelia St. Clare and K, one woman at the bar asked us what team we played for.
"Ours," Yamato said.
"Well, does your team have a name?" the woman asked.
"Not that we're aware of," I said.
"We're an expansion team," Horner said. "The front office hasn't given us a name yet."
"Do you play with a recreational league?" another woman asked.
"We haven't found our league yet. We're still looking for it," Widdiker said, which I think was the final disquieting remark that drove the two women away, right as Lou Benador of the CIA saw us at the bar and, with a suspicious smile, walked up to us and stared at our jerseys.
"Where'd you get those?" Benador asked.
"The store, Lou. They sell them in sporting goods," Widdiker said, because we had no intention of telling him anything that mattered.
"Who the fuck," Benador said as he turned to look at the back of Horner's jersey, "is Miss Ophelia St. Clare?"
"You guys in the CIA don't know shit," Yamato said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Night Of The Avenging Blowfish"
Copyright © 1994 John Welter.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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