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Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream
By Jay Feldman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 Jay Feldman
All rights reserved.
GREAT TRAILING CLOUDS OF DUST BILLOWED UP BEHIND the two-tone green Packard coupe as it barrelled along, hell-bent, through the middle of nowhere. Paying closer attention to the radio than to his driving, Sefton fiddled with the dial in an ongoing battle to defeat the static that kept intruding on the broadcast.
"Well, this is the old ballgame, riiiight here, friends," drawled the announcer with exaggerated import. Sefton listened intently, a bundle of nervous energy. "Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, full-count on the batter, as the Bears try to slam the door on this Tucson rally and chalk up a win. You can just feeeel the tension."
"You can say that again," agreed Sefton, commenting out loud to himself in the manner of a man who spends too much time alone.
"Okay, Cartwright has the sign. He sets. The runners take their leads."
"They'll be runnin' on the pitch," said Sefton.
"With two out and the count full, they'll be off with the pitch," echoed the announcer.
"That's what I just said," Sefton informed the radio.
"Now Cartwright steps off the rubber."
"Cartwright, you bum," said Sefton with amused disgust. "That's why you're still pitchin' in the bush leagues —'cause you got no guts." The radio crackled and whined. "Get in there and throw the damn ball, for Pete's sake."
"Okay, he's back on the rubber. He sets, he winds, the runners go, here's the payoff pitch ... OWEEEOOOOWOWEEEEEE...."
"What the hell?" snapped Sefton, reaching for the dial. He muttered to himself as he twisted the knob this way and that in a desperate attempt to tune back in on the game. Suddenly, hebecame aware of something in his path — a jackrabbit had dashed out into the road some twenty-five yards ahead of the car. Braking as he swerved to avoid it, Sefton overcorrected and went into a skid. The back end fishtailed out, and the massive Packard went sliding down the dirt road sideways. Sefton wrestled with the wheel in a urgent struggle until he was finally able to get the automobile under control. He glanced back to see the jackrabbit zig-zagging crazily through the sagebrush. "Damn jackrabbit."
"I'll be loving you," crooned an oily voiced tenor. Sefton quickly grabbed the dial and tried for a few futile seconds to get the game again. He smacked the top of the dashboard in vexation and switched off the radio. "Damn radio."
He drove on in silence for a few seconds. Without the game to occupy him, he focused on his surroundings, realizing all at once that it had been an hour since he had given any thought to his location.
"Where in the Sam Hill am I?" Sefton asked himself.
Still driving at a good clip, he opened the glove compartment and took out a road map. Keeping one eye on the road ahead, he opened the map and consulted it. Finally, he reached a conclusion.
"Lost is where I am." He looked around at the saguaro cacti that dominated the landscape. "I am lost."
He continued on for a few minutes before he noticed the darts of steam escaping from under the hood of the car. In a panic his eyes flew to the temperature gauge: the needle was pinned over the red H on the right. "Shit."
Sefton glided the Packard to a stop and got out. He immediately felt wilted by the blistering heat. "Holy hell," he gasped, "must be a hunnerd and twenty." In the distance he saw a group of turkey vultures circling lazily in the afternoon sky. "I could fry out here. My bones'd be bleached by the sun by the time anybody found me."
He limped to the front of the car and stood for some moments watching the steam dance up from the narrow gap between the hood and the body. He took out his handkerchief and lifted the hood, releasing an angry ball of vapor. The radiator hissed and sputtered. In his impatience, he briefly considered prying off the cap, but his better sense prevailed. "Let it cool down a bit," he advised himself.
Sefton limped to the back of the car and spread out the map on the trunk. He took out his billfold and removed a scrap of paper: Eddie Pulaski — Buckeye, Arizona. He went back to the map. "Buckeye," he said, fingering the word. He moved his finger southeast to Casa Grande where, after lunch two hours earlier, he had made the reckless decision to abandon the main road and cut across the desert on an unpaved road in an ill-advised attempt to save time.
He studied the map. I shoulda stayed in Tennessee, he thought. This ain't my territory. I don't know my way around here. Jeez, I could end up dyin' chasin' some high school kid who probably can't even throw hard enough to break a pane of glass.
Sefton leaned against the car. He watched a lizard scoot across the sand. Those mountains on the horizon — were they twenty miles away or two hundred? Jesus, what kinda godforsaken land is this? Nothin' but cactus and sagebrush. He thought of the Western movies he had seen and half expected a bunch of Indians suddenly to appear out of nowhere and come swooping down on him. Instead, a prairie dog made a mad dash along the ground; when it reached its hole, it sat up on its hind legs and looked straight at Sefton for a few seconds before disappearing into the earth. The air was so hot it rippled.
For a brief moment, Sefton considered heading back to Tennessee, but as soon as the thought presented itself, he ushered it out of his mind. On the other hand, he thought, this kid could be the real McCoy. There's always that chance....
He looked at the map again, trying to determine where he was. What made no sense was that judging by the sun, he was traveling east, and Buckeye was northwest of Casa Grande. Somehow, he had gotten turned around on these back roads and spent the afternoon chasing his tail. Now, here he was in one hell of a pickle.
In this heat, it could easily be an hour before the water in the radiator cooled down enough for him to get rolling again. Resigned to his misery, Sefton hobbled around to the shady side of the car, opened the door, and sat down on the running board.
The midday skies began to cloud up, and he could see a rainstorm in the distance. Soon it was as dark as it could be and still be daytime. Elaborately branched streaks of lightning momentarily lit up the scenery, followed by thunderclaps that grew increasingly ominous. Sefton decided he had better get moving.
He went to the front of the car and gingerly touched the radiator cap. It had cooled enough for him to remove it. He peered into the radiator, and there was a decent level of water still remaining. Still, best to keep the speed down, he figured. He replaced the cap, shut the hood, climbed into the car, and started it up.
He decided to keep driving east, that sooner or later he was bound to hit a paved road. After a few miles he came upon what appeared to be an irrigation canal that had a road alongside it.
He had been on the canal road for a couple of minutes when all at once the sky opened and a torrent of rain the likes of which Sefton had rarely seen began falling. Quickly, he rolled up the windows and turned on the windshield wipers, but they were wholly inadequate against the sheets of water that were teeming down.
After a hundred yards of driving blind, Sefton gave up and brought the Packard to a stop. He turned off the engine and sat listening to the rain pummel the cartop. In fifteen minutes, the storm began to taper off; five minutes more and it was done. The level of water in the canal had risen by a couple of feet.
Sefton rolled the front windows down, started up the engine, and drove. Ten minutes later, he was astonished to see that the surface of the road was bone dry. He scanned the desert — nowhere was there any evidence that rain had ever fallen. The air, however, was noticeably refreshed. It was still hot as hell, but it was no longer as stifling.
Sefton saw a roadside sign that made him honk the horn with joy: SACATON 5 MI. "Civil-eye-zation, here I come," he cried jubilantly, and a mile down the road he was still so elated at the prospect of getting back on track that he burst into song. "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?" Sefton sang with great gusto. "How ya gonna keep 'em away ... from ... Broadway?"
The song petered out as Sefton caught sight of something up ahead. "Now what have we got here?" As he approached, he was able to make out a fenced compound with a watchtower. When he got near enough, he saw that the fence was barbed wire and there was a uniformed guard in the tower. "Huh. Prison camp of some kind."
He looked at the map, but nothing of that sort was indicated. As he pulled alongside the camp, he saw through the fence that a baseball game was in progress. "Well, I'll be," said Sefton, tickled. "Now don't this just beat all? The American pastime. Nothing like a game of baseball to take a man's mind off his troubles."
He stopped the car, got out, stretched, and limped over to the fence. The ballfield was nothing but bare ground. The first-and third-base lines were filled with spectators sitting in folding chairs or standing.
Taking up a position between home plate and first base, Sefton watched the infielders fire the ball around the diamond as they do after chalking up an out. The third baseman, close to the mound, returned the ball to the pitcher and trotted back to his position. As the catcher squatted behind the plate, a new batter stepped in.
The pitcher, a lefty, looked in for the sign, nodded, then wound and delivered a blazing fastball that caused Sefton to blink with disbelief. The batter watched it go by. "Steee-rike!" bellowed the umpire.
"Do that again," muttered Sefton.
The pitcher peered in, nodded, and smoked another one by the hitter, who swung feebly and way too late. "Twooo!" the umpire roared.
Sefton's attention was riveted on the mound, his eyes as big as saucers. The pitcher went into his windup. "Curve, down and in," said Sefton to himself.
The pitcher threw. The batter cocked his bat and strode into the ball. At the last moment, the pitch altered its course and dove toward the right- handed batter's shoetops. He tried to check his swing, but it was too late, and he lunged weakly, waving his bat at thin air. The crowd erupted in cheers, and the players in the field came running in toward the first base bench to take their turn at bat. Sefton squinted to make out the name on their jerseys: FRESNO. Fresno, he thought, ain't that in California? What're they doin' out here in Arizona playing in some prison camp?
Sefton called to a group of fans ten yards inside the fence. "Hey, pal. Psssst."
A man turned. He was Asian and wearing a baseball cap. "Me?" he asked.
"Yeah, you. Ya know that pitcher?"
"What's his name?"
"Huh?" said the man inside the fence.
"The pitcher," explained Sefton. "Eye-talian."
The man looked at Sefton for an uncomprehending moment, then turned his attention back to the field. From under the brim of his fedora, Sefton looked through the fence to the bench. His eyes found the pitcher, who was concentrating on the game as he toweled himself off.
Sefton suddenly became aware of the oppressive heat. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his face. He looked at his watch. Jeez, he thought, five thirty and it's still hot enough to boil spit.
The first batter of the inning drilled a sharp single to left, and the Fresno pitcher came to bat. Let's see if he can handle the bat, thought Sefton as the pitcher stepped in. He took the first pitch for a ball, then laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt that died halfway up the first base line. "Damn nice," said Sefton reflexively. "Damn nice."
He watched the pitcher trot back to the bench. He could not make out his features, but his body was small and tight. Sefton guessed he was maybe 5'7" or 5'8", 170 to 175 pounds. One of those tough little sneaky-fast southpaws. Like that Lombardi kid they got coming up in the Brooklyn organization. Or that little Polack, what's his name, Lopat, that the White Sox are bringing along. Maybe a little smaller than Lopat, but the same type. We should keep our eye on that Lopat. If he works out, we should grab him. He could win twenty for us pitching in the Stadium. I should talk to O'Neil about that.
Sefton took out his notebook and wrote himself a reminder. Then he turned to a new page, wrote "Fresno 8/4/42" at the top, and recorded what he'd already seen of this unexpected lefty.
For the rest of the game, Sefton watched him execute the many little things a pitcher needs to do to be a winner: he picked a couple of runners off base, he fielded his position deftly, he covered first on ground balls to the first baseman. Most of all, he had poise on the mound — when he gave up a single and double with one out in the eighth inning, he bore down and worked his way out of the jam without allowing a run. Sure, his mechanics could use a little work, but that was to be expected — he was a diamond in the rough and needed a little polishing.
When the game ended, Sefton called to the man inside the fence. "Hey, pal, could I talk to you for a second?" The man in the cap turned. "Do ya think ya could get him over here?"
"Who?" asked the man.
"The Fresno pitcher. I'd like to talk to him."
"I guess so."
"I'd sure appreciate it."
The man went to the knot of jubilant players around the first base bench. Sefton watched anxiously as the man talked briefly to the pitcher and pointed in Sefton's direction. The two of them began walking toward him. When they reached the milling spectators, the pitcher stopped to talk to a group of three people — a man and two women. What are women doin' here? Sefton wondered. He saw the pitcher point toward him and now all five came his way. Ten yards from the fence, the group of three — Sefton could now make out a young woman and an older couple — stopped and waited.
As the pitcher approached, Sefton was taken aback — he, too, was Asian. "Here's the guy that wanted to meet you," the man in the cap told the pitcher.
"Thanks, Tommy." The man nodded and walked away. "What can I do for you?" the pitcher asked Sefton.
Recovering from the surprise, Sefton stuck his hand through the fence. "Suitcase Sefton. My close friends call me Mac."
The pitcher shook hands. "Jerry Yamada. Pleased to meet you."
"That was a heckuva job you did out there today," said Sefton, turning on his best brand of sincerity.
"Thanks," said Yamada, matter-of-factly.
"I mean, I've seen some damn good pitchers, fella, and you're as good as any southpaw I've come across."
"Have you ever thought about playing baseball for a living?"
"Well, here's your chance," said Sefton, pausing for effect, setting up his next line, the one that would make this kid's eyes pop. "I'm a scout for the New York Yankees."
If Yamada was impressed, he certainly did not show it. "I see," he said politely.
Ooh, this kid's a cool customer, thought Sefton. "I'd like to sign you to a contract," he said. Now that's gotta get him.
The pitcher thought for a brief moment. "I don't think that would work out," he said.
"You don't think it would work out? Maybe you don't understand what I'm saying. I'm offering you the chance of a lifetime, fella."
"I appreciate that, sir."
"So what's the problem?" Sefton asked with mild irritation. Yamada hesitated. "Look, if you're angling for more money already, you don't have to worry about that," Sefton offered. "I'll pay you what you're worth."
"It's not money," said Yamada.
"Then what, for Pete's sake?" Sefton asked, his voice rising.
"Do you know where you are?" asked Yamada. "Do you know what this place is?"
"Okay, you're a con," Sefton said reassuringly. "I understand. It ain't a problem. As long as you ain't an axe murderer, we can work out a deal with the authorities. We've done it before."
"This is not a regular prison camp," said Yamada. He turned and waved his hand toward the people inside the fence. "Look around. Do you notice anything about these folks?"
For the first time, Sefton looked closely at the players and fans. The first thing he noticed was that everyone who was not wearing a baseball uniform was in civilian clothes. This puzzled him, but before he had time to think it over, something else hit him. "Holy shit," he said involuntarily. "They're all Japs."
"Not Japs, Mr. Sefton," corrected Yamada. "Japanese Americans. This is an internment camp. Do you understand? The federal government sent us here. Even if I wanted to sign with you, it would be impossible."
Excerpted from Suitcase Sefton and the American Dream by Jay Feldman. Copyright © 2006 Jay Feldman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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