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The Seersucker Whipsaw
By Ross Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Ross Thomas
All rights reserved.
My four-city search for Clinton Shartelle ended in Denver where I found him playing shortstop for the Kwikway Truckers in a sandlot park at 29th and Champa. He was playing barefoot and talking it up in the infield.
The scoreboard said it was the top half of the ninth and that the Truckers were leading the Pueblo Ironmen six to five. There was one out with the tying run on first. The bleachers that ran along the third and first base lines were about three-quarters filled with the teams' families, friends, and just people who think a free baseball game is a good way to kill a warm July evening.
I took a seat in the stands next to a fat Mexican who ate tamales out of a newspaper as he gave some advice to the pitcher.
"Burn it in there, baby!" the Mexican yelled through a cupped hand. He had something wrong with his adenoids and whatever it was lent his voice a blasting resonance that crackled in the night air.
"Where do you get the tamales?" I asked.
"Guy's got a cart, right down there by third," the Mexican said. I went over and bought three tamales from an old man with a white pushcart that rolled on bicycle wheels. He used The Denver Post to wrap them in, but the individual tamales were bound in real cornshucks. They cost twenty-five cents each.
I went back to the bleachers and sat down by the Mexican again. The pitcher tried another fast ball, but it was low and outside. "How come the guy playing short hasn't got any uniform?" I asked the Mexican.
"Just a minute," he said and gave the pitcher some additional encouragement. "The guy out there was just sitting here watching. Then when Connors got his ankle twisted, he just goes over and talks to the manager and they give him Connors' glove and he starts playing. He ain't bad neither."
"Connors is regular short, huh?"
"He's regular short, but he got his ankle twisted in the second inning when he mistook a hop."
"And the tall guy's been playing since?"
The Mexican chewed the last of his tamale, licked his fingers neatly, and nodded. "That's right," he said after he tidied himself up.
The pitcher took a long windup and tried a slider. It was hit-and-run. The man at the plate got a fat piece of the ball as the runner on first scampered towards second. It was a hard-hit grounder to short that took a nasty bounce, but Shartelle pulled it in on the hop and snapped it to second in one smooth motion as if he had been doing it all spring and summer. The second baseman made a nice throw to first in time for the double play.
"How 'bout that?" the Mexican said.
"He can go to his right," I said.
"Not bad for an old guy like that."
"You mean the shortstop?"
"He must be close to forty."
"And then some," I said and walked down from the bleachers towards the bench of the Kwikway Truckers.
I had never met Clinton Shartelle, but I had seen pictures of him in the elaborate dossier that the agency had compiled and bound in a leather folder that made it look like a presentation to Anaconda Copper. We always went sled-length in that agency. The pictures had been mostly news shots, grainy stuff from AP, UPI's Wide World, Black Star, and the rest of the commercial houses. In nearly all of them Shartelle had been in the background, apparently by accident, standing slightly behind and to the right of the photos' principal figures. In most of the shots he wore a preoccupied look, as if he were trying to remember whether he had turned off the roast. In others, he was next to a variety of beaming but somehow glassy-eyed men—young, old, and middleaged—who smiled vacuous smiles and made some small gesture of victory: a thumb and index finger forming an O or hands clasped together over their heads in the boxer's salute.
The pictures showed Shartelle as a man with a face in the shape of a broken heart. His chin came to a rough point and a wide mouth wandered around above it. His nose was on the right track until it got halfway to where it was supposed to go and then it veered slightly to the left. It was a good nose, a strong nose. His eyes in the pictures were dark and direct and the left eyebrow was in a fixed arc that lent him a questioning look. It was a face that gave off, if it gave off anything, an air of preoccupied amusement that stopped just short of cynicism, but not much short.
He was using a towel on the short-cropped hair that was his trademark, when I approached him. The hair met in a widow's peak, was pure white, and had been so since he was nineteen years old.
"That was a nice play, Mr. Shartelle," I said.
He turned to look at me. "Now you'd be a little young to scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates," he said. "Although that was a kindly thing to say to a man of my years."
"It was a fine catch and a good snap to second. I'm Peter Upshaw."
He put the towel on the bench and we shook hands. "My pleasure, Mr. Upshaw."
"I've been looking for you for five days. You've been moving around."
"You come on slow, Mr. Upshaw. But nice."
I smiled. "It's a holdover from the days when I sold mutual funds in college."
"And now you're selling?"
"I'm not. I work for Padraic Duffy. In London."
Shartelle nodded and looked up as the ballpark's lights were switched off. "And how is the poor Irish lad from Chicago who aspires to be England's noblest lord?" He didn't seem really interested.
"He was in New York for a month recently. We all hoped that they enjoyed having him there as much as we enjoyed him being there."
"He hasn't changed, I take it?"
"No. He hasn't changed."
Shartelle gave me an appraising look and again nodded his head slightly. "He hasn't changed the initials either?"
"No. They still stand for Duffy, Downer and Theims. Limited."
"Prosperous, I hear."
"Padraic Francis Duffy—or Pig as we called him."
"He raises them now, in case you're interested."
"He would," Shartelle said. "He would raise pigs just to prove that a pigsty, as long as it's Irish, can be a work of art. Chester Whites?"
Shartelle produced a package of Picayunes and offered me one.
"I didn't think they still made these," I said.
"You can get them at the tobacco stores, the kind of places that sell nothing but tobacco. Most drug stores don't carry them."
"I'm getting just a little chilled," Shartelle said. "Why don't we go to my hotel and I'll take a shower and then you can make your pitch." He looked around the deserted baseball field. "For some reason, I don't think this is quite the place to entertain a proposition from Pig Duffy."
Shartelle had a small suite in the old part of the Brown Palace on Sixteenth and Broadway. He had a view of the mountains, furniture that was a cross between Italian Provincial and Midwestern Modern, about two dozen books, and an ample liquor supply. It looked as if he had settled in for a long stay.
"You a married man, Mr. Upshaw?"
"Not any more."
"Well, I don't reckon this kind of living would appeal to a married man."
"It probably depends on how long he's been married."
Shartelle grinned. "It might at that. Why don't you fix yourself a drink while I take a shower. There's a bucket of ice in the refrigerator and the refrigerator is in the bottom of that thing that looks like an escritoire."
I poured a measure of Virginia Gentleman into a glass, dropped in two ice cubes which slopped a little of the liquor over the side, added some water and walked over to the window to see what I could of the mountains at night. There were some lights high up, but at night Denver looked very much like Birmingham, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City which were the three other towns where I had been searching for Clinton Shartelle.
He came out of the bedroom wearing a white shirt, a yellow, green and black striped tie that rightfully belonged to the Lancashire Fusiliers, dark gray slacks, and black loafers. His thick white hair was brushed and lay close to his head in a damp, tidy pile.
" 'Denver,' some early settler once remarked, 'has more sunshine and sons of bitches per square foot than any place else in the United States.' He may have been right. I know Pig Duffy would feel right at home here." He walked over to the fake writing desk and put some ice in a glass. "I see you have your drink, Mr. Upshaw."
He sat in an armchair and took a sip of his whiskey. From a distance he would look sixty, until you saw him move. The dossier said he was forty-three. Up close, if you blocked out the hair, he looked thirty-two or thirty-three despite the wide mouth and the meandering nose. I decided that it must be his eyes. There has been a lot of nonsense written about childlike gazes, but Shartelle seemed to look out on the world with the lesson-learning gray eyes of a nine-year-old who has been told that he must save the ten-dollar bill he found under the bench in the park. Although he knows he will never find another one, he also knows that he will never again tell anybody if he does.
"What role do you play in the Duffy charade, Mr. Upshaw?"
"I'm an account executive."
"While I was taking a shower, I was thinking about your name. You did a series on Hungary a long time ago." He named the paper I had worked for.
"You're right. It was a long time ago."
"And now you're flacking for Pig Duffy?"
"They're calling us public relations practitioners this year."
"How'd you locate me?"
"I checked with the national committee in Washington. They had a rough itinerary. I kept just missing you. My instructions were to make the proposition in person; no phone calls."
Shartelle rose and moved over to the window that looked out on the Denver night scene. "And what is Pig's proposition?"
"He told me to mention the fee first."
"It's thirty thousand."
"Pounds. Not dollars."
"I'll say 'oh' again and put a little interest into it."
"I don't blame you."
Shartelle turned from the window and looked at me. "Where?"
He smiled, and the smile grew into a laugh. A delightful laugh. "I'll be goddamned," he said, choked, and laughed again. "I'll be goddamned to hell! Nobody but that shanty-Irish son of a bitch would have the nerve."
"He does have a plentiful reserve."
"Mr. Upshaw, he's got the balls of a brass ape. I've seen high rollers in my time, but for plain green gall there's none that'll match Padraic Duffy, landed gentry."
"He speaks well of you," I said in game defense of my employer.
Shartelle dragged a chair close to mine, dropped into it, then leaned over and tapped me on the knee. "Why, he should, Mr. Upshaw. By God, he should! You don't know about old Pig Duffy and me and it's too long a story to tell right now, but I will say that he should speak well of me."
"He said you'd worked together once or twice."
"Did he tell you about the last time?"
"I don't imagine he tells many people about that, but after it was over, I told him just like I'm talking to you that if he ever so much as mentioned my name in the same breath with his, I was going to clean his plow good." He tapped me on the knee again. "Now I told him that as one Southern gentlemen to another."
"Duffy's from Chicago," I said.
"Not when he's in New Orleans, he's not. In New Orleans he tells folks he's from Breaux Bridge. Where're you from, Mr. Upshaw?"
"North Dakota, Fargo."
"Why, if old Pig got up to Fargo, he'd tell folks up there he was from Mandan. Or Valley City."
"You know North Dakota?"
"Boy," he said, "there's damned few places in this country I don't know. And if I call you 'boy', it's just my purposeful' plain way of speaking that seems to put folks at their ease and makes them think I'm not too bright which I probably ain't."
"Just call me Pete."
"I was fixing to."
"I think I'll have another drink."
"You do that. Now what's this about Africa?"
I tried the Virginia Gentleman again. "Duffy has been asked to handle the strategy, campaign management, and public relations for Chief Sunday Akomolo who wants to be premier of Albertia when it gets independence from the Crown come next Labor Day." I needed a breath after that.
"Who's Chief Akomolo?"
"He's the head of the second largest political party in the country—the National Progressives."
"How many in the race?"
"There're fourteen parties—but only three of them count."
"How did Duffy get asked in?"
"Cocoa. He landed the Cocoa Marketing Board account and did his usual promotion job."
Shartelle nodded. "I heard about it. The cocoa futures bounced around some as a result."
"It was a volatile commodity for a while," I said a bit pontifically. "Well, Chief Akomolo is on the Cocoa Board, met Duffy, and got the idea."
Shartelle rose and walked over to the window again. "O.K., let's bring it all out nice and plain. Just what kind of stakes you playing for?"
"No limit. The country's got twenty million people, add or subtract a million or so. It's got one of the best harbors on the West Coast. It's got oil that hasn't been touched, mineral deposits, a solid agricultural economy, and a built-in civil service system that'll run for a hundred years and a day before it breaks down or someone forgets to minute a file. The British have seen to that."
"Who'll count the votes?"
"So the boy who gets in this time will be counting the votes the next time."
"Then there's really going to be only one election, the first one, because the next time around the ins will have it wired."
"You seem familiar with African politics."
"No, I'm just familiar with all politics. It's been my life-study. And in some circles I'm considered a leading authority, and I say that with all modesty."
"You've got the track record, I hear."
"What's Duffy's end?"
"Not as much as you'd think. The entire package is five-hundred thousand pounds. Your cut would be thirty thousand, as I said."
"And if the Chief wins?"
I looked up at the ceiling. "I don't know really. Let's just say that there's probably a tacit understanding that DDT would get the whole thing—advertising, promotion, consultation, marketing, feasibility studies—everything."
"How much is all that, you reckon?"
I shrugged. "I'd guess twenty million annual billing."
Shartelle chuckled and shook his head slowly from side to side. "Now ain't that something? Old Pig's got himself a fifty-six-million-dollar-a-year nigger candidate and he's calling for help. From me. Now that's really something."
"He said you'd say that."
"It bother you?"
"Nothing much bothers me, Mr. Shartelle."
"Let me tell you one thing, boy."
"It wouldn't bother Pig."
There was a silence that grew. I lighted a cigarette, an honest Lucky Strike, and smoked it without pleasure as Shartelle looked at me with a slight smile. It was the same smile he would have given a fifteen-year-old. That was all right; I felt like thirteen.
"Look, we can sit here all night and you can make snotty remarks about Duffy, but he's paying my salary, so don't get upset if I don't chime in."
Shartelle grinned. "Now, Pete, you're just pissed off because of the nigger talk, aren't you?"
"No," I said. "I'm not pissed off."
"Now, boy, I could pull out my cards in the N-Double A-C-P and CORE and show them to you. Or I could put in your hands some kindly letters I got from some of my colored friends who've been right active in all this Civil Rights hoop-to-do. Or as a Southern gentleman I could tell you that Iknow colored folks because I was brought up with them, which I was, or that I had a fine old colored mammy who I loved better than anyone in this world, which I did. I could parade, right before your eyes, evidence—real evidence—that I am probably the world's biggest nigger lover, and to top it off I could describe in detail to you a high yellow I once courted in Chicago and would have married except she ran off with some smooth-talking firetruck salesman. He was of the Jewish persuasion, I believe. Now when I say nigger it's because I plain can't stand to hear some flannelmouth like me from Opelousas or Natchez trying to say Nee-gro and the word just sticking in his throat like a catfish bone. When I say nigger, it don't mean a goddamned thing because I go by the Shartelle theory of race relations, and the Shartelle theory was pounded and shaped out of a hell of a lot of experience with black and white alike and, boy, I'm gonna give you the benefit of long hours of serious thought and hard study, and I'm surely not one for much introspection. I am possessed, you may have noticed, of an outward-going personality."
Excerpted from The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1967 Ross Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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