The Devil and Denny Hocking

A Fictional Essay

by Judd Spicer

The joint was jumpin. Buddy Holly on the juke, pool tables knockin with rails full of nickels waitin for more. Somebody must've spiked the fountain or paid off the soda jerk because the chicks were totally ready to rock n' roll. I played it cool at a table by myself, letter jacket on, eyes locked into a ball game runnin across the brand new color T.V. set at Sammy's Burgers and Billiards.

This set was the tops, one of the biggest in town, and it was like the ballplayers ran and threw and hit above us all. They seemed so big, so real life like way up there in the corner of Sammy's place. That field looked like a prairie, green as all day, and the ballers worked that ground like they were the farmers of heaven, plowing through the dirt and dancing over each blade of beautiful grass.

Heck, I nearly forgot why I was there, so glued was I to this Technicolor monster. If Sally Sue and her crowd hadn't shown up, meeting me liked I hoped upon hope they would, I could've dreamt the day away beneath that screen of sky and sluggers.

She looked so pretty that Sally Sue, all made up in her skirt and piggy-tails and red lipstick that matched her hair, making her face seem pure as the snow that would off-set this summer day at the turn of the calendar.

"Hey, Sally."

"Hey, Bobby. You know Joyce and Betty and Liz and Jane."

I sure did, having met them when I met Sally at the drive-in a week before, but they just looked the blurry bunch so caught were my eyes on Sally. She was beautiful. So perfect from her red head to her baby skin toes. I couldn't move my blinkers off of that girl.

"Glad you girls could come. Told you Saturdays at Sammy's is the hoppin spot. Anybody want a cheeseburger? My buddy runs the kitchen back there."

They all just giggled and pointed and did whatever they did.

"I'll just get a plate of Sammy's Burgers with some fries for all of us then. That way we can have as much as we want. How's that?"

I went to place the order with my pal Ritchie, and came back to the table to find me and Sally all to ourselves. Two of the girls, I think it was Joyce and Liz, giggled and pointed at a pool game, and the other two ran over to the juke.

"Ritchie said he'd set us all up just fine. Should only be about five minutes or so."

"Gee Bobby, how'd you get all those patches on your jacket?"

"What? These? Well, over at Central I'm what they call a jock. What do they call the sports guys at your school?"

"Pretty much the same. Still, I've never seen any of our boys with so many patches as those. You must be just the best over there."

"Well, I'm not bad. I play football and basketball and baseball. Baseball's my best. I'm a pitcher, a righty. My pop said not to tell nobody this, but I got a letter from the Yankees a few weeks back. You know, in New York City."

"The Yankees! In New York! Oh Bobby, that sounds so far away."

"Oh it's nothing. I'd go to New York City, Paris. Play with the Frenchies if they gave me the chance. I just want to play ball."

"It sounds like you just adore that game."

"Don't you get me started, Sally Sue. I could go on till September, make you late for classes. See that fella up there? That big 'ole number 7, that's Denny."

She turned her head up toward the screen.

"That one up at bat?"

"No, that's Dougy. Denny's up next. He's just the tops, my favorite of all time. He plays every position 'cept pitcher. A real life sandlot baller."

"Oh, my daddy's talked about him. He said like you just did, 'A real sandlotter.'"

"Yup, if I wasn't a pitcher, I'd try to be just like him. Mr. Utility-Johnny-On-The -Spot Ballplayer."

"Geez Bobby, I like the way you talk about baseball. I could just listen to you talk like that all day."

Ritchie came up with our plates of burgers and fries. He made nice with Sally and I went to round up the girls. Before going back to the table I plopped some coin into the juke, putting in a few songs to set the mood right with Sally: A couple of slow Elvis numbers, this one Bobby Darin lick, and my favorite eye-grabber, hand-holder, scene maker for any time, "Words of Love," by Buddy.

"Look Bobby, isn't that Denny up there?," Sally asked when I sat back down.

"Good eye, Sally. I bet all you nice girls, and anybody else in this joint a nickel that Denny goes extra bases right here and now."

Nearby pool dudes and some fellas at the next table took me up, only to mix tears with their cream sodas when Denny directed an outside fastball down the opposite field line. Easy double.

"Let's see 'em boys. Just the shiny ones please. Don't want any rubbed-up Tommy Jefferson's in these here pockets."

The gang of girls, Sally especially, got a good charge out of my wagers, giggling and pointing at my small handful of nickels.

"Guess the pool and juke are on me," I said coolly, and they all giggled again, and Sally Sue and I made these perfect eyes at each other, and Denny stood like a giant on the bag at second, and we all started in on our plates.

We could hear those motor cycles rumblin a mile before they roared up to the front door of Sammy's.

Sally and I were alone at the table, starting to get close. Ritchie had just ended his shift and was showing two of the girls, I think it was Joyce and Liz, how to play nine-ball. The juke was pumping out some Johnny Mathis number that Sally Sue's girls had put in, compliments of my victory nickels. The ball game watched over us all, cruising along with us and our Saturday.

"So when they want to turn a double play, to get two out for the price of one, and the ball grounds to the shortstop, the second baseman goes over to cover second base. Now, for pitchers like me in that situation, you have to--," and I was cut off telling Sally about baseball. And the pool games all seemed to stop, too. The song of the juke was drowned out. The ball game kept going.

Those biker sounds were mean, loud, and we all turned our heads to the front door, waiting to see what would come through.

What did walk in seemed to put everyone at ease, if just for a moment. Little guys, henchman types, dressed in cruddy leather jackets and boots, trying to look like toughs, but likely just as soft as the curls hanging over Sally Sue's shoulders.

They were followed in by a few more their type. Then a couple 'a bigger ones joined behind them, and then a few more bigger than that. They had our attentions now, filing in the way they did. Starting with the little leather fish, then moving up in size from dog, to gorilla, to black bear.

They stood in the entryway looking surprisingly organized in ways of rank and size. Whispers of, "The Owners are here," and "Looks like the Owner Gang," started to fill Sammy's. I'd never seen these guys before, heard of 'em sure, but never had I put eyes on what was said to be the most dangerous of biker gangs from Fargo to Madison to smack middle here in our Twin'd Cities.

"You should get, Bobby," Sally said to me with nervous tones. "I just couldn't stand to see anything happen to you when he comes in. Please Bobby, I'm sure there's a way out the back of this place."

Stillness, an eerie, cloudy kind, filled the room. The pool balls weren't knockin, the burgers weren't flippin, the words of Buddy and Johnny and The King stopped singing. The ball game played on.

"Didn't walk in through the back, Sally Sue. The hell if I'm gonna exit that way."

"But he'll be coming through. He always walks in last."

"Who's he?"

And the weird fog started to clear and a lanky piece of crude leather walked in. Gangly, with glasses, and carrying a look like he owned the answers to silent questions, he was without a doubt the leader.

"Big Bud, Bobby. You don't know how he is. If he see's us together, he'll just go crazy. You don't know anybody with his kind of cruelty."

It was clear that some of the fellas in Sammy's knew of what Sally spoke, as the back door swung open and shut. A group of scared girls clung together in a corner. Ritchie ducked into the kitchen.

The henchmen of all sizes started to move through the place, and the haze finally seemed to clear. Big Bud stood in the doorway and lit a cig, his big glasses looking over the place.

"So this is Bud. I've heard all about him and his boys. He's a friend of yours or somethin?"

"I can't explain it now, Bobby," Sally said fast and low, as her girls started to put on their coats and gather their purses.

"Well you could start by telling me why he's lookin over here the way he is."

Sure enough he was. Aiming his controlled, cold eyes at our table. Saying something with silence, lookin like there was a bad taste that started in his feet and rose up to his mouth.

"Please Bobby. Just tell him you're a waiter. Something."

"Waiter? Hell, I'm a pitcher, Sally Sue. A baller."

Big Bud started in our direction while his boys continued about the place. They looked tough enough all right, in their black boots and jackets, their slick hair and messy teeth. Power in numbers and all that. Fellas continued to duck through the back. Girls kept their purses and jackets close. Nobody ate, nobody shot stick, nobody sang. The ball game moved forward.

Big Bud reached the middle of the room and stopped. He moved his eyes off of our table, then surveyed the room.

"Who the hell owns this place?," he asked no one in particular.

"Sammy. This is Sammy's place," answered a shaky voice from a remote corner.

"Sammy, eh," and he smashed his cig beneath his boot. "Well one of you straits tell Sammy that Big Bud's here, and that he wants a brew."

"No booze here," responded the same faceless voice. "Just burgers and sodas and pool and ball games."

"Burgers and sodas and pool and ball games," Bud announced from his attention-grabbing spot at the center of the room. "Burgers and sodas and pool and ball games," slower this time.

Big Bud removed a shiny flask from the inside of his coat and took a swig of something that made his teeth grind.

"George," he said to one of his smaller thugs. "Gimme a taste of one of these burgers I keep hearing so much about."

George went to a deserted table near ours and grabbed an untouched burger, bringing it to Bud.

"Hey Jerry," he said to another of his crew. "Gonna need something to wash this down.

Jerry followed orders, helping himself to the fountain, filling up a cup of orange soda.

"Hey Carl," Bud said to one of the bigger guys. "Fetch me one a' them pool sticks. Yeah, a big heavy one like that."

Everyone sat silent at Sammy's, watching Bud bark out his orders. He did it with a spooky calm that kept everyone in check. Nobody went to challenge his muscle or authority. Everyone just waited to see what would happen next. It seemed the only movement came from the ballers on the screen above, diving and throwing, swinging and running.

Bud took another tip from the flask before beginning on the burger and soda his boys had brought over. After a few bites and a couple of chugs, he set both down on a pool table, then started to line up an untouched shot, a six ball in the corner belonging to a game previously in progress.

He lined it up real slow like, really taking his time. His boys started to encourage him, yelping for him to put it away and knock that sixer home.

Instead of doing that though, instead of putting that ball in a rightful and respectable place, he picked it up, lobbed it in and out of his hand a time or two, then threw it across the room, smashing this big, wall length mirror hanging over the juke.

The girls screamed and some more fellas ran and Bud yelled at the top of his booze-filled throat.

"Now hear this and hear it clear! I'm Big Bud and these here are the Owners and when we come into a place like this or any other place any or all of you mugs are, you best put down all your burgers and each one of your fries and show us the hospitality we deserve!"

He took a messy bite of his burger and then a gulp of the orange soda and then threw both on the ground.

"All right boys," he said, a fresh cig in his mouth, "Do your worst."

And Sammy's erupted in chaos. Pool sticks were broken on chairs and plates of food were tossed all over the walls. More glass was smashed. Tables were turned over, and any fellas finding themselves in the way got a bloody lip for it.

I sat at our table, patient.

Bud watched the scene with a cracked smile, enjoying the destruction of our place. Satisfied, he started toward our table again. Sally Sue was shaking.

"So this is what you do on Saturday, Sally?," he said, tossing his lit cig into the kitchen.

"No. No Bud. Oh, no. We just dropped in for a soda cause Betty was thirsty. Right Betty?"

"Probably hung out here last night too, eh? Forget our date, did you?"

"No, Bud. Like I said I was sick. Have been for days until I just had to get out of the house today. Really."

"Sick. Know what makes me sick, Sally? Having to run through town on a Saturday looking for you, when you know I told you to always be where I tell you when I tell you on the tick of day and the tock of night. I know we've had this talk."

"Yeah, Bud. I know. I know. Please just make those boys stop tearing up this place. Please, I'll go right now, wherever you want. Whatever you say. Let's just please go. Please."

"We're understood, then?"

"I should've listened better, Bud. I'm sorry. It's all my fault. Please, can they stop. Can we just go."

"Boys!," and he snapped his fingers. "Save some energy for later. We've got a long night, hear me."

On command the toughs stopped what they were doing, and began making their way toward the door, leaving Sammy's a wreck of food and glass.

"See baby, I can do right by you, too. You start listening with these pretty ears of yours and these messy little meetings can be avoided."

Sally Sue stood quickly and her girls followed suit. They click-clocked their heels toward the door, but Bud wasn't quite ready to follow.

"C'mon. Hey Bud, we're ready. You said. You know what you said, Bud."

"No, I know what I said. I just want to sleep well tonight knowing that this here letter jacket wasn't sitting at your little soda party by accident."

"Heck Bud, never saw him before he brought us our drinks. C'mon now, please. All the girls are ready."

"That right . . . Bobby," he said looking at my jacket. "You a soda boy?"

"No."

"Well that's what that young lady here just said. You calling her a liar?"

"I'm no waiter."

"Well what the hell are you then, Bobby?"

"I'm a ballplayer."

"A what?"

"I'm a ballplayer. A pitcher."

"Oh. Oh my, a ballplayer. I see what you mean. Like that. Like that up there, right?," he said toward the screen.

"Yup."

"Well Bobby I used to play a little ball myself. Oh yeah, I was a regular slugger. Probably not as handy off of the mound like you here, but when I came to that plate, I could really pound 'em."

Bud walked across the room and grabbed one of the last unbroken pool sticks.

"You know if you want, I could show you, Bobby. Show you how I used to smash that ball. Pardon my lack of that true Louisville wood you boys use, but I do believe this stick here will do the trick. Boy I used to take a big, hard cut when I eyed one I liked. Let me show you, Bobby. Eh, pitcher? Let me show you how I used to crack 'em."

Big Bud walked before the screen in the corner of Sammy's and moved his feet around like he was digging into the batter's box.

"You weren't watching this, were you ballplayer? This game here?"

"Don't do that."

"Yeah, I'd dig in real deep, take a practice cut or two, then--"

"I said, don't do that."

"Give that fella on the mound a little wink, then--," and he started to swing at the screen until I grabbed the cue from his hands.

Bud looked at me, his big glasses, his same cracked smile. I tossed the stick aside, then faked with my right before clubbing him across the chin with my left. He went down slow, awkward, his leather clunking against the messy floor, his glasses hanging sideways on his face.

"Asshole," I said before sitting back down at my table.

There were a few fellas left in the place and they sat down next to me. We turned our attentions toward the screen.

We sat in silence until Denny, playing second base on the day, made a fine back-handed stab of a low liner to end the seventh. When he stood, brushing dirt from his knees, we all began chatting it up, eager for the next inning to begin.

2001 Judd Spicer. All rights reserved.

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