c/f internet Saint Louis promotional material

Chapter 32: Intermezzo: fucking and duck hunting

Intermezzo: noun; a movement coming between the major sections of an extended musical work (such as an opera)

I carried out my mother’s assignment to report her pending death to my father and uncles from a hotel room in St. Louis. After the Goodwill Games, she wouldn’t let me blow off a business trip to St. Louis. Promised not to die until I returned, and kept her word. Like the matriarch, she always kept her word. When I got back and gave her a red Cardinals night-shirt she snorted. “Why ain’t it silk?”

My father was most affected. My eldest uncle, a retired Army officer, accepted it with the Southern existentialism the matriarch taught us. My Episcopal-priest uncle predicted he was next, since their youngest brother was already dead; he said they were dying in inverse order. He was right, but we didn’t know that then.

Difficult phone calls. Especially with my father, who had tried calling her several times recently and complained the man answering her phone sounded suspiciously like a “nigger.” Had to be BC, her last boyfriend — whom she refused flatly to discuss with me now. Since I wasn’t supposed to call him, I guessed he already knew. I was emotionally wrung out by the calls, and puzzled by the BC omission, if he still answered her phone. But knew I’d never press her about it. Romantic relationships are the business only of the involved. Not even a son has the right to inquire.

Below my hotel window in the muggy heat, the street was a sluggish red river of Cardinals fans streaming toward Busch Stadium. The game might offer a diversion from deep thoughts of love and mortality. I wandered downstairs and bought a Cardinals cap and joined the fans. My never-still brain noted this was my fourth major-league stadium after Baltimore Memorial, LA’s Chavez Ravine and the Mariners’ King Dome.

The Cardinals were not remotely in contention. The Pirates already had clinched their division. In that regard the game was meaningless. But the casual élan of the Pirates and stubborn resistance of the redbirds honored the tenets of the game with crisp play despite that. Baseball teaches many lessons. That day its message was life goes on. Even when it’s brutal or meaningless, you do the work you know how to do the best you know how: the Zen of baseball.

After dark, city streets were deserted and somehow sinister, as if some malignant zombie force owned the night. When I asked a hotel night porter where to find an all-night diner, he said there was a good one close by. “But don’t go walkin’, y’heah? Take a taxi unless you got a cah.” I did have a rental, and drove to Jimmy’s 24-hour Diner. Its bright lights gleamed off several marked Saint Louis patrol cars, reminding me they spelled out “Saint” everywhere in the city.

The food was filling and excellent, the coffee good. Several uniforms chowed down while reporting events to their patrol sergeant. The summary was several gang shootings being worked, three fatal — and their shift had hours to run. No wonder the night felt dangerous. The sergeant busted an occasional lazy move on the blonde waitress, indifferent to the mayhem his men reported. She handed it back proficiently and in good humor. It was clear she liked him.

All cop talk halted when my six-hundred dollar cellular phone rang as I ate my omelet. This was when a cell phone was the size of a beige brick with a thick rubber antenna, like a scaled-down Army walkie-talkie. The Miami Vice TV show had cemented cellular phones to nocturnal drug deals in the imagination of the public. And, it appeared, the minds of street cops, who made no pretense they weren’t listening.

In this case the caller was Olympia Radio, my own organization’s dispatch. I was on 24-hour-call no matter where on the planet I happened to be. Some of our troopers had been in a pursuit with shots fired on I-5. The media wanted details. I took notes in my old spiral reporter’s notebook. My omelet cooled. I followed the baseball lesson: did what I knew how to do, though my mother was dying out west. Called Seattle Associated Press to get the shooting details on the wire. When I finished, the patrol sergeant was looking me over.

“You with the state? I heard you mention troopers and a shooting on the Interstate.”

“I’m with a state, yes. But not this one. Washington State. Here for a traffic safety convention.”

“Dispatch tracked you down, huh?”

“Ever know a good dispatcher who couldn’t?”

He grinned broadly. I spoke the language. He waved his subordinates back into the night to assist harried detectives in a canvass at a fatal-shooting location. What he said next caught me completely off-guard. “You a duck hunter by any chance?”

“Does it show, even in a suit?”

“The Ducks Unlimited club tie kind of gives it away.” He chuckled. “I ought to be a detective, but why work that hard? I’m a duck hunter too.”

He had read a glowing magazine story about Evergreen State mallard hunting — could it be that good? I was really taken aback — as if Fate had decreed a small reward for dealing with those difficult phone calls. Ducks I could talk about with no disrespect to my mother. She knew about me and duck hunting.

The sergeant had never lived outside Missouri. Did all his duck hunting on the Mississippi River. He owned a camouflage 18-foot jonboat with a big outboard and used 150 decoys for river bluebills. While we talked duck hunting he used his portable radio to quarterback his uniforms and take requests for assistance from detectives.

He grumbled about interstate highways intersecting in his jurisdiction, said they funneled too many bad guys into town from both directions, Chicago and Kansas City. Do a crime, hit the interstate — it made his whole precinct a big fat target. The drug gangs turned the city into a combat zone after dark.

But he had two weeks’ annual leave scheduled for opening of duck season. Then the bad guys could have the run of the place for all he cared. He needed to cleanse his soul out on the big river. He actually used those words. He was a duck hunter, all right. He was happily detailing the toil of laying so many decoys off a sandbar in Huck Finn’s vast river when another uniform joined us for coffee.

“Sarge never talks about anything but women or ducks,” the young cop told me. The sergeant winked at the waitress, tipped his chair back on its hind legs and made a memorable pronouncement.

“Listen to me, son,” he said. “There are only two things in this world that matter a damn. Fucking and duck hunting. But you can only hunt ducks three months out of the year!”

Before too long, both were called away. The blonde waitress and I had the place to ourselves. “Quite a philosopher, our sergeant,” I said.

She glanced out the window with a fond smile. “There’s always January,” she said.

***

Note: my intermezzo conceit, from a lengthy roman a clef I styled a word-opera, came to mind reading an excellent story about Southern Illinois, across the river from Saint Louis, by a writer who grew up over there. Taking a break from a bureaucratic convention, and from difficult tasks assigned by my mother, I spent one pleasant afternoon driving around quiet rural areas across the Mississippi that seemed as far from Chicago’s mean streets as the moons of Mars. But Saint Louis is what got into the book.

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.