Those Were The Days, My Friends

SHORT STORY by Willard Manus

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end,” sang the radio as Bobo Lustwig drove through the endless, stupefying corn fields of Iowa, destination Des Moines, where his old sidekick Stewart Simensen lay dying.

Bobo wasn’t about to let Stewart perish without a fight; that was for damn sure. He was going to do everything in his power to give him life, even if it meant risking his own.

Bobo cracked open another brewski and took a swig, checking the rental-car’s mirrors to make sure no black and whites were lurking, but all he could see for miles around was corn. Corn and shimmering heat and a cloudless sky as blue Stewie’s eyes.

That was the first thing he had noticed about his pal: those blue eyes of his. That and the blonde cowlick drooping down the left side of his face. The combination screamed farm-boy. Rube. Yokel.

But he was soon obliged to change his mind about the guy. Once that big, gawky left-hander took the mound in spring training and went into his slow, contorted windup and fired a ball at the batter, all condescension disappeared and was replaced by admiration, even awe.

Whack! came the sound of ball hitting catcher’s mitt, the sound of a pitcher throwing one fast ball after another past a batter. Whack whack whack!

Eventually Stewie managed to learn how to throw two additional pitches: a sneaky slider, a passable change-up. But the fast ball remained his primary weapon, his money-maker.

Here it comes, hit it if you can, was Stewie’s strategy. See if you can handle this heater, mother-fucker! That was Bobo’s doing, making Stewie curse out an opponent like that: aggression didn’t come naturally to the big rustic who wore a crooked grin on his face, even while pitching. It was all fun to him, sheer enjoyment of life, even when an opponent crushed one of his offerings and sent it into orbit.

Bobo went to work on Stewie, tried to wise him up. What is this Christian shit of loving thy neighbor? he asked him. You ain’t in church, man, you are competing in the real world, a world in which there is zero mercy for pitchers who can’t get batters out. So wipe that shit-eating grin off your face and get mean, goddammit. Get nasty. Get city!

* * *

When Bobo finally managed to escape from the vast fields of corn and reach the medical center in Des Moines, he was confronted by a skinny, bespectacled geek with pen and pad in hand. His name was Harvey Benson and he wrote free-lance sports articles for the Des Moines Register.
“I hope you can give me a little of your time,” Harvey said in a high-pitched, irritating voice. “I’d like to do a feature on you and Stewart getting together again after all these years.”

“Why bother? I doubt if anyone out there even remembers who we are.”

“Are you kidding? The two of you were famous in your time. And now you’re about to make headlines again by donating a kidney to save his life.”

“It’s a tricky operation. Ain’t no guarantee it’ll work out.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Harvey said. “To let baseball fans know whether the operation will be successful or not.”

Harvey fished out his iPhone and aimed it at Bobo. “Do you mind if I snap a pic? The paper would like one of you in the ‘Before’ stage.”

* * *

There was yet another surprise in store for Bobo: sitting beside Stewie’s bed in the pre-op ward was Loretta Richardson.

Loretta Richardson!

Bobo was overjoyed to see her. The good times they’d had together! The incredible times!

He went toward her eagerly, wanting to wrap his arms around her, only to be taken aback when she threw her hands up and backed off. “Sorry,” she sniffed. “I’m not allowed to hug anyone. I just had a lung removed.”

So the years had taken their toll; she was older, greyer and thicker, but still carried herself gracefully, lightly, like the dancer she once was.

They turned their attention to Stewie. Hooked up to various kinds of medical machines, clad in a drab hospital gown, he sat up in bed, eying them. He had lost weight, become a gaunter version of himself, but his eyes were as blue as ever and he could still flash that goofy smile of his.

* * *

That night Bobo and Loretta had dinner in an Italian joint in downtown Des Moines. He drank mineral water instead of wine and barely ate anything, as per the surgeon’s instructions. Loretta ate and drank for the both of them: soggy lasagna and three bottles of Pironi beer. They chatted like blatherskites about the old days, telling stories, interrupting and correcting each other, arguing, joking, cackling and hooting; it’s a wonder they didn’t get kicked out of the place, so loud and rude were they.

“Remember that night at Joe Allen’s, the night when we first met?” Bobo asked. “You were with a bunch of other hoofers from that show of yours, what was it–‘Man of La Mancha?’”

“Nah, ‘Fiorello.’”

“Right, right, ‘Fiorello,’ how could I forget?”

Bobo took a sip of Pellogrino, then resumed: “All of a sudden you and your pals started screaming and embracing and falling all over each other–“

”The New York Times review had just come in. We were a hit, a success! It guaranteed a long run, a steady pay check for maybe the first time in our lives!”

“I’ve never seen such happy people,” Bobo said. “It was catching. I felt happy myself, even though the Mets had knocked me out of the box in five innings earlier in the day.”
“You didn’t let it get you down. That’s what I liked about you. You didn’t whine about your loss or make excuses for it.”

“How could I whine when I’d just met you–a Broadway dancer with legs up the whazoo and an ass and tits to die for.”

“Thank you for such a profound and mature assessment of my character.”

“Come on, Loretta–you were the hottest babe in town and you knew it. Flaunted it!”

“What good did it do me? Look at me now.”

“Shut up! You’re still gorgeous, maybe more so than ever.” Bobo took another sip of the fizzy water. “Then we all split and walked together to that Greek dive on 8th Avenue–“

”–the Athenian Gardens--”

“–yeah, yeah, the Athenian Gardens, where they had live music and a 250-pound belly-dancer. Stewie couldn’t get over her; he had never seen anything like that big fat mama, growing up in Iowa–“

”Fort Dodge, population 714,” Loretta said.

“I spent years trying to persuade Stewie to get the hell out of Dodge.”

“He finally made it out, thanks to you. He moved to Manhattan and had a taste of the good life–“

”A brief taste anyway,” Bobo said.

“Hey, it was more like five years,” she shot back. “Five years of sitting on the top rung of the monkey bars, digging the view from up there. Not many ballplayers have ever made it to those heights.”

“You were up there with us.”

“Yeah, but you and Stewart got all the glory. You were the most famous pitchers in the game: the city boy and the country bumpkin, winning games by day, partying your butts off at night–“

”We did party,” Bobo admitted, “but don’t forget, we could sleep all morning and report to the ballpark feeling rested and ready.”

“You pitched a no-hitter in the 80s–“

”–July 6, 1984, against the Red Sox–“

”And then not long after that things began to go wrong. You lost control of your pitches, started getting hit and losing games. The same thing happened to Stewie. How do you explain it?”

“Come on, Lo, you know what happened. You stopped shacking up with us.”

“You’re blaming me for your collapse?”

“Everything was cool when we were a threesome. Everything turned to salt when you walked out on us.”

“It couldn’t go on the way it was. It just couldn’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Keep your voice down,” Loretta whispered. Then: “People treated me like a pariah, a whore–-all because I was living with two New York Yankee pitchers.”

“Fuck what people think! Who gave them the right to judge you like that?”

“It was to be expected, I guess. The story was all over the sports pages, the gossip columns. Anyway, the notoriety began to affect my career; choreographers thought twice about hiring me.”

“So you dumped us. You dumped us for scared, selfish reasons, and then everything fell apart for Stewie and me. We got kicked around on the mound, were sent down to the minors. By the end of the 80s we were out of the game.”

“Not my fault. I wasn’t your good-luck charm.”

“Weren’t you?”

“Goddammit, quit talking like that! You and Stewie drank and partied too much. You burned the candle at both ends and were left with a puddle of hot wax.”

Bobo thought things over, then gave a reluctant sigh. “I guess you’re right,” he said.

“You make your rules and play by them. I knew the bills would come due eventually. I knew I’d have trouble covering them.”

* * *

Harvey Benson sat hunched over his laptop, occasionally sneaking a floor of Gino’s, but he was up on the mezzanine, the only person in the section. He was drinking double look at Loretta and Bobo. They were down on the main Jacks on rocks, but not eating anything, Italian food being too greasy and stinky for his mid-west sensibilities. Not that he had time to eat anyway: too much work to do. He needed to write five thousand words for the Register on the reunion of the “most colorful and controversial baseball duo of all time” (his headline). It was due by eleven p.m., so he had better get his ass in gear. He went online to check a few facts, even though he was sure of the story’s essential ingredients: Bo and Stew having it all in the 80s...kings of the American League...the playboy pitchers and their swinger girlfriend...Broadway babe with the million-dollar gams spreading for both of them...Jesus, what a hot, juicy story it had been, baseball exploits spiced with illicit sex...a newspaper-man’s dream.

Then came the fall, the let-down: Bo and Stew being dumped by the nympho hoofer; the booze and weed catching up with them, Bo crashing the cherry-red Caddie he drove round Manhattan with the top down; Stew checking into a rehab clinic, then hurting his arm by rushing his return to the mound...

As he got deeper into the article, Harvey described Bo as a pitcher “with a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent brain,” adding gleefully that he had ended up sleeping under the Brooklyn Bridge with a brown paper bag in his hand. Harvey then described how Stew had returned to the family spread in Iowa, living in obscurity after that. The bigger they are, the harder they...

Harvey’s fingers were flying; he could write this kind of shit in his sleep. He poured it on, banging out the feature in short, pungent paragraphs: Stew eventually coming down with kidney problems, Bo sobering up (thanks to AA) and becoming a black-jack dealer in Atlantic City, Noo Joisey...

Harvey then switched gears and began to pay fulsome tribute to Bobo for having “stepped up to the plate in heroic fashion.” Even though he hadn’t seen his sidekick in twenty years, he had volunteered to donate one of his kidneys to him. Reason being (this was Harvey’s theory) that he felt responsible for his old friend’s illness. He had corrupted that innocent, clueless farm-boy, turned him into a drunkard and a lech, and now he was desperate to make up for his shameful behavior, assuage his guilt.

Much as Harvey disliked Bobo, yearned to stick it to that

degenerate, he still had to acknowledge the man’s bravery. It took guts to let a surgeon open you up and remove one of your organs. It made Harvey nauseous just to think of such a thing, being operated on like that, carved up like a fucking Thanksgiving turkey.
What was Bobo thinking right now? Harvey wondered. What was he saying to Loretta? Was he feeling apprehensive? Having second thoughts about the operation? You couldn’t blame him for that; the procedure was difficult and dangerous, it could end in death. Death!

Normally, Harvey didn’t like thinking about death, but there was no way around it right now. The Register expected him to write a second story in the morning, a post-surgery feature. If something went wrong during the operation, it could result in one or more fatalities.

Harvey quit typing, looked around in a panic and shouted, “I need another drink, dammit!” Then, after managing to calm down, he forced himself to get back to work, reminding himself that he had an exclusive story here, the biggest scoop of his life. Don’t fuck it up, cowboy!

He turned his attention to Loretta. Loretta, the ex-Broadway high-stepper and sex queen (who was now teaching pilates at a Connecticut parochial school), had flown on her own nickel to hold Stewart’s hand and maybe pray for him. Then Bobo had shown up and livened things up. She was having dinner right now with her former heart-throb; they were chatting, gazing longingly into each other’s eyes. Wouldn’t it be great if he could snap a photo of them slipping into a motel room together; the Register would not only run the pic on its front page but sell it to just about every newspaper in the country!

It would be the best thing that ever happened to him; it would force the Register to apologize for having canned him. The paper might even offer to rehire him, allow him to cover high school sports once again!

* * *

Bobo’s operation was over quickly; it took the surgeon just under an hour to wield his knife and divest him of his left kidney.

“I just had to snip and sew up a few tubes and capillaries, whereas with Stewart my colleague had to do all kinds of joining and stitching, making the operation long and arduous. On top of that, he had to cope with the constant threat of rejection, the failure of the transplanted kidney to function properly,” he told Bobo.

Still in all, it took the better part of a day for Bobo to begin to feel a bit better. The anesthesia wore off slowly, leaving him in a kind of twilight sleep, one filled with strange voices and shapes: a Yankee’s pitching coach barking orders at him; a woman (Loretta?) whispering something in his ear--or was it the ghost of his mother, a strange, spectral shape, calling to him, beckoning for help...?

Then, suddenly, Loretta’s voice cut through the miasma. “How do you feel, Bo? Does it hurt?” she asked as she leaned over him.

“Only when I laugh.”

“Congratulations, sweetie. You seem to have come through everything in good shape.”

“And Stewie?”

“He’s still zonked out.”

“But he’s okay, isn’t he?”

“So far, so good.”

“That’s a relief.” Then he eyed her. “Are you up for dinner tonight?”

She gave a little snort.

“It’ll be a while before you can go out on the town.” Then she added, “That reporter wants to interview you again. Are you up for it?”

“Are you kidding? Tell him to take a long walk off a short pier.”

“Lots of other people have been calling the hospital as well: former teammates of yours, some of your casino buddies.”

“That’s nice of them. But you’ll just have to put them off. I’m not in the mood for any chit-chat right now.”

He reached for her hand.

“I’m glad you’re here, Lo. You’re still an ace gal. I never should’ve let you get away. I should have married you, made you mine.”

“Never mind that,” she said. “Just get well, dammit.”

* * *

Loretta said pretty much the same thing to Stewie later that day, but got no response from him, so full of pain-killers and immun-suppressive drugs and steroids was he. Then, in the middle of the night, came a rejection episode, but Stewie managed to survive it, successfully enough to be moved out of intensive care two days later.

“Ah’m feelin’ okay,” he told them. “Ah was even able to take a decent piss this afternoon.”

“Praise the Lord,” Loretta said. “That is indeed good news.”

She looked round at both of them.

“So here we are again. The Three Stooges.”

“Here no evil, see no evil, do no evil,” Bobo added.

“Listen up,” Stewart said. “Ah’ve got something important to tell you.” He paused for a moment, then resumed. “Ah’ve got this big old farm house outside of Fort Dodge. It’s been in the family for centuries; plenty of room for all of us. Why don’t you both move in with me, stay there for good?”

“And do what, pick corn for living?”

“No need for that. I lease the fields out, don’t need to do a lick of work no more. It’d be just like a retirement home for us, a place to get by on our pensions. We’ll sit and rock on the porch all day, drinkin’ ice tea and shootin’ the breeze.”

It wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. Loretta was a widow: husband long dead, children grown and scattered. Bobo was divorced and working a mindless job, shuffling and dealing cards to unsmiling Asians. As for Stewie, he’d never married, was the last living member of his family–-and in desperate need of companionship.

None of them was a whole person. Lo was missing a lung, Bobo and Stewie were each down to their last kidney. But put the three of them together and they would resemble a whole human being. A normal human being.

* * *

It didn’t take long for Harvey Benson to catch wind of the news, thanks to one of his contacts in Fort Dodge. He couldn’t believe his luck, getting a second scoop on something as unexpected as this: two of baseball’s most notorious scamps living under the same roof again with their personal sex slave, the Times Square trollop herself, Loretta Richardson.

Harvey’s fingers were flying over the keyboard again, he was really cooking here, putting together a feature that would top everything he had written about them before; this menage a trois stuff was a lot more commercial than writing about a diseased kidney. It had legs as well, there’d be other angles to pursue in the weeks to come: the threesome’s escapades, arguments and problems. He’d write these things up and the Register would not only buy them all but beg him to come back to work for them. He’d make his bosses grovel! He’d make them eat shit!

Here Harvey stopped typing and dug into the last of his Egg Foo Young. Des Moines’s Little Shanghai Restaurant was his favorite place to work these days, ensconced in a booth in the rear of the place. He had the area to himself during the day; it was cool and peaceful here, and the waiter knew what to bring him for lunch: Egg Foo Young, chop suey and fried rice, and now, for dessert: orange slices and a fortune cookie.
Just then his cell-phone rang; it was his old pal, Des Moines’s police chief, Captain Devon R. Knolls, who said abruptly, “You’ll never guess what just happened.”

“Talk to me.”

“Stewart Simensen just died–“


“Seems his new kidney suddenly just upped and quit on him.”

“How could that be? He’s been fine for all these months.”

“Transplants are a mysterious thing. Rejection episodes can occur at any time, I’m told. It’s all got to do with the dialysis, drug toxicity, the risks of infection. Anyway, whatever the reason, the guy died a couple of hours ago, down in Dodge. Thought you’d like to know.”

Harvey put the phone down and spat some words out. “Thought you’d like to know.” Fucking A, he’d like to know! Now he’d have to scrap what he’d been working on and start writing an obituary. An obituary signaling the end of a life and–even worse–the end of his cash-cow series on the bad boys of baseball, Bobo Lustwig and Stewart Simensen.
Harvey gave a deep, hurt-filled sigh. Then he slurped some tea and cracked open his fortune cookie. It read: “On the right track, means need to run even faster, or got run over.”