Although I was being left to ‘my’ guests at my surprise birthday party, and had already spoken to a lot of them, I didn’t know where I should turn next after I finished talking to Luke and Sabrina. It was Keaton who solved that for me by coming through the crowd in my direction.
“That must have been Luke,” he said. “Since even I can tell he’s good-looking.”
“Sabrina’s here too. She said she wanted to paint us together again.”
Keaton just shook his head and mumbled “gay gay gay.” I noticed that his hair stayed in place as he did it, though. Then he added: “there’s someone who wants to meet you over on the couch.”
I couldn’t see who it was, so I followed Keaton.
It turned out to be Mrs. LaSalle. She was sitting with a cane propped up against the arm of the couch, but she had a large pilsner glass in her hand.
I walked up to her, and bent down and gave her a kiss. I still hadn’t even thanked her in person for having paid my rent a year ago.
“I’d stand up,” she said, “but then I have to use that stupid thing” she indicated the cane and sighed. “I tripped over one of the rugs when I was confined to quarters for COVID all those months. I was supposed to be kept safe…and look what happened. Anyway, I got a bad sprain…and I still have to use the cane when I walk. Doctor’s orders. They were all ready to take my rugs away and leave me with bare floors. Until Keaton came and taped them all down one day he was delivering groceries. They look terrible, but at least I don’t have to hear from my downstairs neighbors about how my slippers are making noise.”
“You look great,” I said. “Even with the cane.”
“Thank you. It must be all the vitamin D the doctors have me taking because I don’t get to go out in the sun. This is one of the first times I’ve been out.”
“You can’t still be under house arrest,” Keaton said.
“No. They say I can go out. I just had my booster shot, too – so I’m not wearing one of those lameass masks. Did you know the invitations actually said ‘masks optional’? Once upon a time they’d only have put that for costume parties.”
“I’m just glad you could make it,” I said. “And…I also have to thank you in person for…you know…”
“The rent?,” she asked. “Think nothing of it. If I’d wanted to be thanked, I wouldn’t have made it a secret. I’m just glad that you ended up with a roof over your head…and such a nice roof it is, too.”
“I’m pretty lucky,” I said. “But I’m not used to parties like this. Luke said I should mingle, but I’m not sure I know how to do that.”
“Just do what you’re doing,” Mrs. LaSalle said.
“Oh, here you are,” said Matteo, carrying a tablet, followed by Jacob and the camera. “We’re supposed to find you.”
“Food time?,” I asked.
“No…we’ve got you set up on Zoom to talk to Lucas, since he couldn’t make it.”
Sure enough, Lucas was visible on the screen of the tablet, which Matteo handed up to me.
“Hey man,” Lucas said, “happy birthday!”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it. They wanted me to come…they even said I could bring Rosalind” (yeah, they’re still together) “but it would have meant missing two days of classes at least, and my parents wouldn’t hear of it. I tried to get them to understand it was you and it would mean being on TV, but, well, you know my parents.”
“It’s cool, man,” I said. Looking at the camera that had followed the boys with the tablet I added, “you’re kinda on TV now anyway.”
“I can see that there are people all over the place,” Lucas said, “so I won’t keep you. But call me tomorrow…I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Will do,” I said.
“Happy birthday again.”
I handed the tablet back to Matteo and Jacob and went back to making the rounds of the room. I reckoned that what you were supposed to do was talk to people for a while and then move onto other people. I also reckoned that, since pretty much everyone was there for me, I owed it to everyone to talk to them, even the people I see regularly.
Especially as some of them brought dates who I don’t know. That included Sloppy Joe, who brought the girlfriend who put him on Nutrisystem with him. I gotta admit that the new Sloppy Joe looked sharp in his suit (which I later discovered was…wait for it…picked out by the girlfriend.)
His girlfriend looked like the pictures that he kept showing us of her on his phone. That means she was nice-looking, but nothing at all like the super hot models and actresses he used to date.
“Hunter,” he said, making introductions, “this is Danielle. Danielle…Hunter, best shortstop in Pasadena recreational softball.”
I don’t usually like to shake women’s hands, but Danielle didn’t give me a choice.
“I’ve seen you on TV of course,” she said. “You’re even better-looking fully dressed.”
I know it was supposed to be a compliment, but she said it so matter-of-factly and with so little charm that it was hard to tell. (The next day, when Meemaw was telling me what she thought of my friends, she shook her head when it came to Danielle and said ‘no charm, no sense of humor’ – but you gotta give Danielle credit for ‘taming’ Sloppy Joe. I don’t know if he wasn’t happier a hundred pounds ago, but he’s been with Danielle for a while and they’re clearly pretty serious.
We made some small talk, then I asked:
“So what do you do, Danielle – I mean for work?” No one should ever be embarrassed what they do when I ask them that: after all, I’m a pool boy with a recurring part on a reality TV show.
“I’m a teacher,” she said. “Third grade.”
I really didn’t see her interacting well with kids. But then not everyone’s as well suited to their jobs as I am lol.
I couldn’t talk to them for too much longer, as the cameraman came up behind me and whispered “mingle” to me.
“Sorry, man,” I said to Sloppy Joe as I was being led away. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” It was a Monday night, so that meant the Parrots were playing the next evening.
“Absofuckinglutely,” Sloppy Joe said.
“Nice to have met you finally after hearing so much about you,” I said to Danielle, as I was led away to get some time with my baseball mentor, Sumter Henderson.
“12 years to the day, Hunter,” he said, referring to when Dad brought Sumter home as a 17th birthday surprise when he was shortstop for the Tennessee Smokies.
“Seems like there’s a pattern emerging.”
“I’m just glad to see you, man. You look great.”
“You’re the one who looks great, hoss. I’ve seen you on TV. I think Dixie has a secret crush on you.” (Yes it’s true: Sumter Henderson married a girl named Dixie, who’s from a small town in Alabama, just like he is.)
“My buddy Keaton says I look gay.”
“I’d take that as a compliment.”
“That’s how I’m taking it,” I said with a laugh.
“You’ve seen the latest pictures of the kids, right?,” he then asked, as if on cue. Sumter’s awesome, and it’s actually pretty awesome how proud he is of his kids, but he sure does show off their pictures a lot. “Here’s Jackson in his little league uniform,” he said, pulling out his phone. It was a picture I hadn’t seen of a little kid posing for his baseball card. It was super cute, and I told Sumter. “You know you gotta get your boys playing in real games, right? I see what you’ve done with them…even with the smaller one. They ought to be learning how to be on teams. It’s not baseball if you’re not sharing it with eight other guys.”
“You’re right,” I said, “but Matteo’s just not interested. Jacob is going to be on a team starting in the new year, though.”
“Good,” Sumter said, and then we got into a pretty technical discussion about hitting (put the two of us together and that’s the kind of conversation you get), even if I couldn’t hang out with him as long as I would have liked.
Dixie came up to us while we were talking about playing ball. She’s a blonde knockout you might guess used to be a cheerleader; the reality is that she graduated with honors from Auburn and has an MSW from the University of Alabama. She’s even published a book already and is on work on another one, while she’s raising kids with a husband who’s on the road half the summer.
“Are you two into it already?,” she asked with a smile.
“Occupational hazard, honey,” Sumter said. “Put two baseball professionals together and baseball talk is what you’re gonna get.”
I never really thought that I was a ‘baseball professional’, but then I thought about it…I teach kids to pay baseball and get paid for it. I’m not a pro ball player anymore, but I do make at least part of my living from baseball. It was a cool thought.