Thursday, March 10, 2016

'Love and Baseball' -- a short story

Author Harry Zubkoff
The following story is the only one I found in Harrys files with a double byline. Evidently he wrote it with a friend or colleague named Lloyd Harrington. The address at the top of each typewritten page is Harrys, where he lived in his hometown Buffalo, N.Y., until 1949.

It feels almost eerie to discover stories my dad wrote at age 20-something, in the 1940s, when a man whistling at a girl
was normal and accepted behavior. As Ive learned in the past year, his fictions through the 1960s reflect stereotypes of women; that was life then. And yet, as far back as 1964, I had a sense my dad promoted equality. Thats the year he cheered my run for 6th-grade class president, coaching me as I stood on a stool and practiced my campaign speech. 

As for this blog, I considered not posting Harry’s stories that flaunt old-school attitudes. Now, however, I think it
s cool to share all of his stories from so long ago, never published or widely shared. As my more recent speech-writing coach says: It’s about memories, it’s about history, it’s about life.

At the end of our first day in the tiny Texas-Mexico border town of El Grande, I had two problems. One was selling advertising for the baseball park. Two was trying to arrange an unfair distribution of the merchandise accounts between Harry and myself.

The second morning I looked up from my breakfast in the hotel restaurant and saw my third problem. Her name was Lupita.

What a doll! What a dish! For a minute I was blinded, positively blinded. I had been conquered by beautiful waitresses before, but never anything like this. I wish I could say that she felt the same way, but the truth is, her only interest was in whether I wanted a second cup of coffee.

“Harry,” I demanded of my campaign partner, “did you see that?”

“Did I see what,” said Harry, his nose buried in yesterday’s newspaper.

“Jumpin’ Jupiter man, the girl, our waitress.”

Leisurely he turned, the bald spot on his head reflecting the Texas sun flooding through the windows on our right.

“Very nice,” he remarked, and turned back to his ham and eggs.

Understatement was one of Harry’s characteristics, but this time he had overdone it. I thought maybe he was blind, at first, but I changed my mind when he calmly dropped a nickel beside the quarter tip I left on the table.

“After all, Lloyd,” he said, “don’t you think thirty cents is a big enough tip on a dollar check?”

I bought an expensive hand-painted tie that day and wore it with my best suit that night, but of course, it was Lupe’s night off. So I wore them both the next morning for breakfast, plus a white carnation from the flower shop in the lobby, and was irritated when Harry showed up in a pair of Army slacks and a sport shirt.

Ordinarily I have no trouble expressing myself, especially to pretty girls, but when Lupe took our orders I was almost tongue-tied, so I just smiled and let Harry order for me.

“Coffee, ham and eggs,” said Harry, shooting a quick glance at me, “for both of us. And a thermometer for my friend.” Wise guy!

Lupe’s answering smile made my hands shake, but it wasn’t until two hours later that I realized she had smiled at Harry. Can you imagine anyone smiling at him when I’m around? Not that I’m a Clark Gable or anything, but I don’t look like something that belongs under a microscope, either, and I have got all my hair.

Increasing the size of my tips during the next few days gave me no satisfaction except that I was able to absorb them on my expense account. Harry gained the only benefit from this frustrating investment on my part. He stopped tipping altogether, but aside from this token recognition, he completely ignored my infatuation for the lovely Lupita.

He was all business. A baseball advertising campaign is a tricky thing, and this was Harry’s first. He was doing well, too, but then he’s a pretty good guy, even if he does look like a little weasel. We had divided up all the business establishments in town, aside from the merchandise accounts, and we were hitting all of them to buy advertising space, either on the fences or in the scorecard. On top of that, we were attending meetings of local organizations, like the Business Men’s League and the Lion’s Club and the Chamber of Commerce, and we were catching workouts of the ball team, writing articles for the paper and making speeches over the radio. We were building up goodwill and selling advertising like mad, and I was trying to keep Harry as busy as possible so that maybe he would forget the merchandise accounts, but no soap. He’s almost as shrewd as I.

In case you’re wondering, the advertising for a baseball park is usually carried out in conjunction with the refreshment concession. The wholesalers who supply the refreshments to the concessionaire are the merchandise accounts. They include the bakery which supplies buns for hots and hamburgs, the people who supply frankfurters and hamburg patties, the candy distributors, the cigarette and soft-drink distributors, the novelty distributors, etc., etc. All those people have a special interest in a baseball park because they make money out of it. They are the gravy accounts for advertising, and they can usually be persuaded to spend more money on baseball advertising than other businesses. Naturally, I wanted to keep as many of those merchandise accounts for myself as possible. After all, I was managing the campaign – on commission.

But I should have known better than to try to pull the wool over Harry’s eyes. The fifth morning at breakfast, he put down his paper, looked through me for a while, and said, “What about the merchandise accounts?” just like that.

I’d been half expecting and half dreading that question, so I wasn’t completely unprepared, just a little shocked.

“Well,” I said, “there are fourteen of them here. What about them?”

“How many do I get?” asked Harry. He didn’t believe in beating around the bush.

“To tell the truth,” I said, “I’ve been thinking about that. You know, Harry, merchandise accounts require a sort of special handling, a different approach. Your selling technique has to be adapted to each one of them, and I don’t think you have enough experience yet to properly sell them as much advertising as they could be persuaded to buy.” There was some truth in what I was saying, but not much. “Anyway, I was going to suggest that you come along and watch me sell the first ten or twelve, and then you take the last couple yourself.”

He was just opening his mouth to say something, something bitter, no doubt, when Lupe brought our coffee. Believe me, I was even happier than usual at seeing her. The timing was perfect.

“Lupita, light of my life,” I smiled at her, “here is a little gift I bring you, a little treasure from Old Mexico, which, by the way, took me three hours to find something nice enough for someone as lovely as you, so won’t you take it with all my love?” All this, mind you, on one breath, like a wounded puppy. I tell you I had it, but bad.

The gift was a beautiful little hand-made silver sombrero pin, which I’d picked up across the border in Mexico the night before, for eight bucks. Lupe picked it up and examined it.

“Very nice,” she said, turning on that dazzling smile of hers, “but Lupe cannot accept.”

“Why not?” I said, “please Lupe, I bought it just for you and I do want you to have it, really. Why can’t you take it?”

“It would not be right,” she said, “Lupe cannot accept.”

“But, Lupe,” I protested.

“Let’s see that thing,” said Harry, stretching out his hand.

Lupe dropped the sombrero in his hand and he studied it for a minute, while Lupe stood there, looking so beautiful and desirable in her silky white blouse and brightly colored skirt that I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

“Want to sell it?” said Harry. “I’ll give you what you paid for it.”

“No,” I said crossly, “I bought it for Lupe.”

“But she doesn’t want it,” said Harry, “and you can’t force it on her. Come on, now, why not let me buy it from you? I’ll send it to my wife.”

“I’m sure your wife would like it,” Lupe broke in, “it’s very pretty.”

“Okay, okay,” I threw up my hands in disgust, “you win. Send it to your wife with my compliments.”

Harry grunted and lit a cigarette and Lupe smiled and walked away. I watched her skirt swinging around her tanned legs and was just getting started on an interesting train of thought when Harry spoke again.

“That dame’s got you doing cartwheels,” he said. “Why don’t you take her out some night instead of mooning at her over your meals every day?”

“Take her out?” I almost shouted, “Take her out? What the blue blazes do you think I’ve been trying to do ever since we landed here? Why I’ve tried every trick in the book to get a date with her, and for all she cares I might just as well be a thousand miles away.”

“What’s the matter,” said Harry, “too much local competition?”

It was true that there was plenty of competition. In addition to all the local boys who were after the fair Lupita, she had half the fellows on the baseball team hanging around whenever they could find the time in their crowded training schedule. And, though I hate to admit it, they were mostly younger and better looking than me, too. I consoled myself with the thought that they didn’t seem to be getting to first base, either.

“It’s not that,” I said, a little calmer, “competition never bothered me. It’s just that Lupe is one gal who can’t be dated.”

“Well, now, I wouldn’t say that,” Harry leaned back and blew a stream of smoke at me.

“Oh no?” I growled. “Listen, wise guy, if you think it’s so easy, why don’t you get a date with her?”

“I hadn’t considered it, but it’s an interesting thought. You think I can’t?” he shot at me.

“I’ll bet anything you say you can’t,” I shot back at him, and could have bit my tongue off afterwards, because a huge grin lit his face.

“Like the merchandise accounts, maybe?”

I should have counted to ten, but I didn’t. Instead I tried to salvage what I could. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the desperate feeling that I was being outmaneuvered, that I was bound to lose.

“You date that gal,” I said, “and we’ll split the merchandise accounts fifty-fifty.”

Even then I had underestimated him.

“And let it ride that way,” he spit smoke at me, “for the rest of the towns on our itinerary?”

What could I do? We have five more towns in the league, and all those accounts represented a pretty bundle of potential advertising money, but I agreed. I hated to, but I did.

Well, the first thing Harry did was dash off a little note on one of the paper napkins on the table, and on top of it he placed a fifty-cent tip. Not a fifty-cent coin, or two quarters, or five dimes, but fifty pennies. The rat! It was just as though he had come prepared.

That night when he got back to the hotel he had a big package in his arms, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He just smiled and got all dressed up and drifted out, package and all. I ate dinner with the rest of the poor Romeos on the ball team, and we all made eyes at Lupe, as usual, and as usual, she disappeared right after the dinner hour. So I went to a movie, and afterwards bought a mystery magazine and took it upstairs to my room, and fell asleep reading it.

The following week, which was our second and last week in El Grande, went the same way. I knew Harry was spending his evenings with Lupe, because he told me so, and he wouldn’t lie about it. But that’s all he told me, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him to tell me how he’d managed it.

I was beginning to work up a terrific inferiority complex, and it didn’t help much when we totaled up our business on Friday and I discovered that he had sold $3,300 worth of advertising to my $2,900.

“Harry,” I told him that night before he went out, “when the boss sees these reports he’ll do one of two things. He’ll either try to find out what’s wrong with me or he’ll recommend a raise for you. It depends on what I tell him.”

“I’d been meaning to speak to you about that, Lloyd,” said Harry. “Do you think I deserve a raise?” Short and to the point, as always. That’s Harry.

“Yes,” I said, “but I won’t recommend it unless you tell me the secret of your success with Lupe.”

“Okay,” he grinned, “tomorrow, on the plane.”

Our last day in El Grande, and I hated the thought of leaving, even though I knew I’d be back during the summer to check on things. Somehow, I was afraid I would never get to hold Lupe in my arms and tell her how much I adored her.

I had a goodbye speech all ready for her at breakfast, but she wasn’t there. It wasn’t her regular day off.

“Harry,” I said, “where do you suppose Lupe is this morning? I wanted to say goodbye to her.”

“Oh,” said Harry through a mouthful of eggs, “she’ll be at the airport to see us off.”

He didn’t pay any attention, while I tore out a handful of hair. The little weasel!

She was waiting for us at the airport, and with her was a woman who looked young enough to be her sister, but could be no one but her mother. They both kissed Harry, on the cheek, I noticed, and then he introduced me.

“This is my friend, Lloyd,” he said to Lupe’s mother, “who is burning with a thirst which only your lovely daughter can quench.”

For a minute I didn’t realize what he was saying, and when it did sink in, he and Lupe’s mother were off in a corner somewhere and Lupe was standing in front of me blushing and looking like an angel with black hair.

I forgot my speech. I took her in my arms and kissed her.

“Lupe,” I whispered, “Lupe, I adore you.” It was like a dream.

“I know,” she said tenderly.

“I’ll be back in June,” I said, and kissed her again.

I was still in a daze twenty minutes later on the plane while Harry was explaining.

“The note was for her mother,” he was saying. “I bought a pressure cooker and went over to her house and showed her mother how to make chili-con-carne, northern style. After that we got along swell. She even gave me some home-canned peppers to send to my wife.”

Can you tie that? Him showing her how to make chili?

Suddenly a belated thought stiffened me.

“The sombrero,” I glared at him. “She was wearing it.”

“Yeah,” said Harry calmly, “I gave it to her with your compliments. I don’t know why, but that gal’s nuts about you.”

He buried his nose in my mystery magazine and I sank back into my dream.

What a guy!

Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman 

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