Lone Wolf had been adamant about joining Manny Furious’s summer softball team.
“I will join and I will win MVP,” Lone Wolf insisted.
“They don’t give out MVP awards in summer softball leagues,” Furious responded. “At least not in this one.”
“They will create one just for me,” Lone Wolf declared.
Furious chuckled, shook his head derisively and then, unconsciously mimicking Lone Wolf’s dominant method of communication, shrugged. He had pretended to waffle on the decision of letting Lone Wolf join the team, not because he didn’t want Lone Wolf to play on the softball team, but just because he wanted to fuck with Lone Wolf.
In reality, Furious had been excited about the prospect of Lone Wolf joining the team. In fact, the idea that catalyzed Furious transforming the idea of creating a summer rec-league softball team into a reality was the thought of having someone with Lone Wolf’s talents on his team.
To watch Lone Wolf play baseball in high school was a thing of beauty–at least for those who saw beauty in such things. He played second base as if he had been born, weaned and raised at second base. He moved in the infield as a scorpion moves in sand. His presence was of such naturalness that he almost seemed to blend in. If you weren’t paying attention you might wonder where the second baseman for Rio Frio High School was, and why hadn’t any of the other players or coaching staff noticed. When he fielded a ground ball, you almost wondered whence he had manifested and how it was possible for him–or most anyone else for that matter–to make the play.
Perhaps it was his moderate immunity to the word virus that prevented it, but Lone Wolf wasn’t one to exhibit much in the way of emotion. He was a living embodiment of a caricature of “stoic.” He rarely smiled, never cried, and wasn’t sure how to express anger beyond a specific kind of shoulder shrug that only his closest friends could identify and understand. However, when he was fielding ground balls or turning double plays there at second base, there was a definable joy. Perhaps he even grinned ever so subtly. And he simply looked like an athlete. Sort of short, perhaps, but all broad shoulders and dense forearms.
As a batter, he didn’t display much power. He hit just a handful of homeruns throughout his four years of varsity baseball. But he never struck out, and he always seemed to hit ground balls and eye-level line drives to just the exact spots they needed to be hit. And while he was fast, what was more striking was his preternatural foresight on the base paths. He never consulted with the third base coach, but seemed to know–perhaps by pure, distilled instinct– whether to push for an extra base or not and when to slide.
Such talent was only emphasized by the fact that the Rio Frio High School baseball team was emetically putrid. They were without a doubt the worst team in the worst league in New Mexico’s 1AAA conference, which put them in the running for the worst team on the face of the entire planet. So Lone Wolf’s grace, dignity and adeptness on the field shone extra bright, like the first ember in the deepest night that sparked the first man-made flame.
Which is why it was such a fucking bummer when he joined Manny Furious’s softball team more than a decade later and sucked something awful.
To be fair, the entire team was terrible, to a point where it is difficult to put words to just how disgusting it was to watch them play. They didn’t win a single contest, and none of them were close losses in any sense. They were grotesque in their clumsy, pseudo-athletic gesticulations and lack of athletic grace. But Lone Wolf didn’t exactly stand out as a beacon of prowess, skill or competence in an ocean of ineptitude. Sure, he was one of the few members of the team who could catch the occasional fly ball in the outfield, and he may have even hit a ball or two past the infield. But he wasn’t good. Hell, the only reason he was even in the outfield to occasionally successfully field a fly ball was because he was such a disaster in the infield, that Furious had no other choice than to move him some place where he would never have to field another ground ball. Over the intervening 12 years or so between high school and becoming something of an old geezer, he had become a klutz. He didn’t play softball so much as spasm it. It was as if the soft tissue in his joints had been tied into knots. He could hardly even run anymore without it looking as if his limbs may simply untie themselves and collapse unceremoniously onto the ground before he reached first base. And when he held a bat, he looked as if he were holding a large, slimy snake, and unsuccessfully wanted to convey to any onlookers that he was neither scared nor queasy about holding it.
In short, he wasn’t having fun.
Because he was Lone Wolf, he didn’t speak much about it. When someone–usually Furious–would try to motivate him or congratulate him for the rare competent play, he would simply shrug a shrug that meant to “fuck off” or to leave him alone and stop patronizing him. On a couple of occasions he did orally declare something to the effect of, “I’m not that bad,” which qualified as an outright brag because he was worse than that bad.
After the last game, the team went out for drinks at the Red Giant Bar and Grill, where the Safeway deli employee who claimed to be the actual Ji Gong of Chinese legend had already been at work, 20 pints deep (at least), at the bar. Most softball teams go to the bar to celebrate being a softball team. But Furious’s team (named, ironically, the “Killah Bees” and who wore black and yellow baseball t’s as uniforms) were drinking as a lamentation. Technically, one supposes, they could’ve been celebrating successfully coping with as much shame, embarrassment and degradation one softball team could handle without completing a mass suicide. Or they could’ve been celebrating the end of such a stupid-ass season. But, really, they were just drinking to numb the pain that accompanies being losers in most aspects of life.
After a couple of hours, all that remained in the bar from the team was Lone Wolf, who had drank himself into an obscene oblivion, as he had no other method of coping with the realization that he was getting older, and his athletic acumen had diminished considerably, to the point of being non-existent really. Apparently you can’t sit around eating chocolate bars and cheeseburgers, and getting the majority of your exercise from occasionally making babies with the felonious stripper Dee Lite and still expect to, you know, be good at moving your body around. He obviously couldn’t articulate this much. He couldn’t think these thoughts, but he could feel them. Something wasn’t right. Something was sad. He had lost something. He could feel it.
But he couldn’t identify it. So he drank to rid himself of the discomfort of feeling something but not knowing it.
Because it was a Tuesday night in Rio Frio, as 9:00pm encroached, the restaurant began to empty, and the employees began to scurry around wiping down the empty tables and stacking the empty chairs. Closing time approached and the waitstaff’s collective conscious was filled with nothing but thoughts of going home and doing things. Non-work things. Mostly they wanted to watch Netflix and post on facebook and snapchat.
Lone Wolf drunkenly gazed at the process. And, from across the restaurant, he spotted someone staring creepily at him from the bar. In his drunken haze, and under the emetic yellow mist of the bar lights, the person reminded him of the aliens from the movie, Signs. But as his vision focused, the spookiness of the outsized head and jaundiced skin of the man dissolved into the body and countenance of the Safeway deli employee who claimed to be Ji Gong. His head had only looked so big because of the the black beanie he was wearing, emblazoned with a Chinese pictograph Lone Wolf couldn’t read or understand, even if he had been sober.
Ji Gong, himself glossy-eyed and sleepy, but also happy and smiling, was holding up a large, mostly empty mug in Lone Wolf’s direction. He nodded toward Lone Wolf. Despite his profoundly limited social skills, Lone Wolf recognized the gesture as an invitation. He drank what was left of his own beer–perhaps his fifth or sixth, but who knew? He had lost count after the second beer (Lone Wolf wasn’t a big drinker)–and ambled over to the bar.
“Welcome, my friend,” Ji Gong said. “Have a seat.”
Lone Wolf stood staring stone-faced at Ji Gong for several too long moments.
“Seriously,” Ji Gong said. “Have a seat.”
Funny, Lone Wolf thought, he didn’t look like an immortal, although he was of indeterminate age and only vaguely Asian in appearance.
The legs of the bar stools were solid chrome, the seats were red vinyl, torn in parts, and the stools creaked when they swiveled. The stool Lone Wolf finally decided to sit on more like whined or whinged when Lone Wolf inadvertently spun as he sat.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Ji Gong said. “What would you like?”
Lone Wolf shrugged.
“Ick. Fuck that,” Ji Gong winced. “Here, let me get you a dark and stormy. I think you’ll like it.”
Ji Gong ordered the dark and stormy and then turned to Lone Wolf.
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering why I look vaguely Chinese or Asian, but speak with a Spanish accent.”
Lone Wolf shrugged.
“Yes, You’re correct. As a supposed immortal, it would make sense that I have lived a long time and traveled to many places, so it is not out of the question that, having perhaps stayed in one place long enough, that I may have picked up a different accent or patois. It is certainly by no means proof that I am not Asian at all, nor immortal. It is not proof that I am pretending to be someone I’m not, right?”
Lone Wolf gazed at Ji Gong as if his tongue had just detached itself from Ji Gong’s mouth and began slithering across Ji Gong’s face. Which it might have. Who knows. Lone Wolf was too intoxicated to insist otherwise.
“So let me tell you,” Ji Gong continued, drawing an accordion hand fan from his trousers and cooling himself with it. “Before moving to Rio Frio, I had spent the past 200 years smoking marijuana on the beaches in Mexico. Starting in the 1940s or so, I owned a small ceviche shack. Several dozen, actually, as I opened up a new one on each beach I traveled to. But the locals never liked my ceviche. And as tourism increased, even the dumb Americans didn’t like my ceviche. Occasionally, a drunk American would come and claim to enjoy my ceviche. But somehow there wasn’t enough drunk Americans. It’s a paradox. I know. But… the good news is I ‘m an immortal and had lived several centuries up to that point and I knew how to get my liquor paid for.”
The bartender, a paunchy, middle-aged lesbian with a crew cut, brought Lone Wolf’s dark and stormy and placed it on a cocktail napkin in front of him. Lone Wolf continued to gaze at Ji Gong with a look of pure discombobulation.
“Anyway,” Ji Gong continued, a beat too late. “The point isn’t about ceviche and mezcal. The point is I spent the past 200 years in Mexico. I saw a lot of fucked up shit, man. I saw wars and revolutions and bandidos and drug cartels. I’ve seen people tortured and maimed. Raping. Pillaging. Genocide. Attempted genocide. Telenovelas. I mean the list goes on and on, man. It makes medieval China look like the land of milk and honey.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d try to help people. I have a few magical powers after all. My wikipedia page even says as much. But, you know, like, there’s only so much an immortal can do. Often, I would even sacrifice myself to save someone else. Many times I did that. Every chance I had, really. But, being an immortal, it didn’t make much of a difference, obviously. Some pistolero and his posse decapitated me using only a fence post and a horse, after I helped his preferred prostitute escape to some town in the Sonoran desert. After the decapitation I rematerialized back on the beach and went back to my ceviche stand. It’s like a video game. I die and I just start over somewhere I was already at at some point. Kill me now, and I’ll probably rematerialize in, like, Albuquerque or something.
“But nothing,” he continued. “Nothing beats what the past 20 years of these drug cartels, man. They’re not human. To call them animals would be a gross mischaracterization of Animals and wild beasts. These were monsters. Are monsters. I became a reporter for a short time in order to report on their crimes, knowing that journalists are often murdered to be silence. But I can’t die, so what did I care? They opened several thousand small abrasions on my skin using the edge of a manila folder, and then threw me in a vat of lemon juice before feeding me alive to several packs of bullet ants. It was the most horrendous thing I could imagine, and it wasn’t even the worst thing I saw these dipshits do, man.”
Lone Wolf drank the dark and stormy in one gulp and promptly went back to staring befuddledly at Ji Gong.
“But the worst, most painful thing I’ve ever seen on this planet,” Ji Gong went on. “It’s nothing physical. The physical pain is, of course, astounding, man. It’s terrible. Don’t for one second think I’m trying to minimize the pain of physical pain. Because I’m not. But the most painful thing human beings do to each other–do to themselves–is be happy. Or, I should say, find happiness in the wrong places.
“Like you! You were happy playing baseball, weren’t you? You liked being good at something. Being better than others at something. You would literally laugh when another player wasn’t as good as you, remember? It became part of what today’s psychologists call ‘self-concept.” You identified with those skills. They became a part of how you perceived yourself, man. After all, if you had simply been two inches taller, or played for literally any other high school team, or had the language skills to go to college, you may have made it all the way. Or, that’s what you tell yourself, right? Or, not tell of course. You feel it though.
“But that sort of happiness is fleeting. Even if it were true, even if you had gone to the majors, what then? Were you going to play forever? Eventually you would have to find some other source of pride for the ego, for the self-concept. Maybe you’d be happy that you simply were good at one time. But that’s sort of sad. There’s more to life than being good at baseball for a short period of time.
“Whether athletic ability, or looks, or money or intelligence, or anything outside of yourself, they may make you happy momentarily, but will ruin you in the long-run. If you’re a handsome man, now, and you take pride in it, what happens when you get old and stop being handsome? What happens if you get into a car accident, or a friend’s pet chimpanzee attacks you and rips your face off? What then? If you’re happy about your intelligence, what happens when you find yourself in a room with someone you fear may be smarter than you? Or what if others don’t recognize your intelligence? Are you happy then? Money. When money makes people happy, are they ever content? Do they ever have enough? As we speak, one-percent of the world’s population owns more than half of it’s wealth. Much more. Will they stop trying to get even more of it? Of course not.
“Really, though, at the bottom of all this anxiety is the passage of time, man. The anxiety with having something and losing it. Time takes away all–good looks, athletic ability, intelligence, even the contentment of earning money. All gone. In the blink of an eye. One life is but a lightening bolt, a white horse running by a small crack in a wall, a flicker of a snake’s tongue.
“That is, of course, unless you’re an immortal,” the man claiming to be Ji Gong concluded, matter-of-factly before drowning himself, in a single gulp, in another pint of a high alcohol-by-volume libation.
Lone Wolf really needed to pee. And he had been so distracted by his need to make waste that he hadn’t heard any of Ji Gong’s oratory. He probably wouldn’t have understood it very well, anyway. Too many words. So much language.
And so he sat on his stool, with an overwhelming need to relieve himself, and–having always been prone to motion sickness (in high school he had once became violently ill during a theatrical screening of The Blair Witch Project because of the handheld method of shooting the film)–he became sick to his stomach from being unable to wholly control the spinning of his stool. There overcame on his face, the sad, helpless look of a man about to blow chow all over the bar and bartender.
However, Ji Gong– basically drunk beyond what any mere mortal could possibly imagine, mistook that sad, helpless look, for one of desperation– and he assumed something in his speechifying had rattled Lone Wolf’s nerves. He assumed Lone Wolf was getting ready to punch him, so he made a “raven’s claw” “fist” by pressing the tips of his thumb, fore and middle fingers together, like an Italian praising a freshly-made plate of pasta, and used the raven’s claw to quickly tap five of Lone Wolf’s energy meridians (i.e. “pressure points”) on his face and torso. Lone Wolf lost consciousness immediately and fell to the floor.
Apparently, Ji Gong had done Lone Wolf some sort of a favor. Suddenly he was young again. Real young. A teenager. And he was wearing the green and black jersey of the Rio Frio baseball team. There was a horrendous, reverberating ding and without any thought he was shuffling his feet toward first base, easily fielding a ground ball and throwing to first base for the out. It seemed like years had passed, and Lone Wolf had played in dozens of baseball games. That was all. He went from one baseball game to another. Some were played in the morning. Some in the afternoon. Some at night. Some games were hot. Some were played in a Rio Frio spring blizzard. They always lost, sometimes by 20 runs or so, but Lone Wolf was always exceptional. He turned double-plays, he hit doubles and stole bases. There was nothing else during this time. No school. No socializing. No sleep. Just one high school baseball game after another. And he was thrilled.
…Until he awoke, lying in his austerely-decked bed, in his austerely-decked bedroom in his austerely-decked, if somewhat messy low-income apartment in the bowels of austerely-decked Rio Frio. He was old again. Mid-30s. Fat. Slovenly. Forget turning double plays, he could hardly turn himself out of bed.
But Ji Gong had done him another favor–he had insured that Lone Wolf would experience no hangover when he awoke. Lone Wolf didn’t know this, of course. He just assumed it was part and parcel for his superior masculinity. Of course he could drink himself sick and not experience a hangover. He was Lone Wolf, after all. There was nothing he was incapable of.
Except, perhaps, for turning back time.