"B-12," came the call
"B-12," the young woman at the controls of the little rotating basket of bingo chips called out again.
"You got B-12," a shrunken, gray-haired woman in a wheelchair said to Tony Stella.
"I flew in a B-52," said Tony. "I was a tail-gunner."
"Yeah, yeah, you flew a B-52," someone sitting near Tony repeated as he looked over the dozen bingo cards in front of him. "You was almost shot down over 'Nam - twice - but your buddy got it home in one piece both times. We know."
"O-69," came the next call.
"You got that, too," said the woman in the wheelchair as she peered over at the lone bingo-card in front of Tony.
"O-69. That was Oscar Silva’s number for years. Saw that on every car from his first coupe to his last late model."
"You gonna mark it or you gonna tell us every damned story we’ve already heard?" said the man with the dozen cards.
"Listen, Pickens," said Tony, "at least I didn’t forget ‘em all."
"You can go eat crap," said Pickens.
"You are crap. You ever do anything in your life? Maybe you didn’t forget. Maybe there ain’t nothing to remember."
"I remember beating the crap out of people like you."
"Oh yeah?" said Tony as he struggled to his feet, putting all his weight on the table in front of him. He turned and steadied himself on the arms of his walker. "You wanna try me? I’ll step outside with you right now. We’ll see who beats the crap..."
"Whoa, guys!" said a young man in scrubs who was watching over the group of nursing home residents. "Don’t start this again."
"I’m sick and tired of listening to his stories," said Pickens. "He thinks he’s Mark Twain."
"Mark Twain’d wish he had my life," said Tony. "So do you."
Tony threw down the bottle of ink with a sponge for a tip that the woman in the wheelchair had loaned him.
"I’ve had enough of this crap!" he said. Than he headed for the door.
"Where you headed, Tony?" said the young man.
"My room," said Tony. "I can’t handle all this excitement."
He hurried himself out of the dayroom, hurried, of course, being a relative term. As he shuffled out, Pickens called after him, "Come back when you can’t stay so long."
"Don’t say it," said the young man to Tony.
"Who you kidding? You’re thinking it so hard I can almost hear you already."
Tony ignored the comment, though he knew the kid was spot on. He and Bill Pickens had been battling ever since Tony moved into the Golden Acres Residential Community. Pickens fancied himself the spiritual leader of the crowd at Golden Acres. Tony couldn’t help but resent anyone who’d think he was anyone special in such an unspecial place. This wasn’t a community, Tony had remarked more than once. It was a warehouse. It was the waiting room to Heaven. It was the most boring place he’d ever known.
Why, he’d resorted to playing bingo! Bingo! It almost embarrassed him to admit it. Still, it was the only option if you didn’t want to spend the day watching people act like idiots on lame game shows on TV - or those awful, stupid soaps. Tony wasn’t about to join the book club, where they actually were reading kid’s books, or - what - the jewelry-beading group?
He made his way to the closed door of the room he shared with Marvin. He struggled to open it, move himself through the opening before the door closed on him, and get past it so it would close behind him. All the while Marvin ignored his struggle.
Marvin was playing his saxophone. Marvin Bradshaw played his sax every morning. His concession to the other residents on his floor was to close the door. He made no concession to Tony. If his roommate didn’t want to listen he could leave, closed door or no closed door.
Not that Tony minded all that much. For one thing, Marvin Bradshaw could blow a horn. He’d played in jazz bands his whole adult life, big bands like those old Count Basie and Glenn Miller outfits, small "combos" that played that crazy, squeally, oddball improv crap. Tony wasn’t a big fan of the sax, but he knew ability when he saw it, or heard it. Marvin had his respect, if not his regard.
Tony dropped himself into his designated lounge chair and noticed Marvin was playing the sax-solo from Springsteen’s Born to Run. He was wailing. You’d have thought he was fronting some bar band on a night they were burning up the joint. Yeah, Marvin was all right.
He finished the solo, removed his sax’s mouthpiece, removed the piece’s reeds, and blew the spray of spit gumming them up into the air.
"They kick you outta bingo again?" he asked Tony.
"I left. Don’t know why I even went. That jerk Pickens was there."
"Why don’t you just ignore the dude? You know he don’t have a good word to say to anybody."
"So what am I supposed to do with myself? I mean, you play a mean sax, but it ain’t my favorite instrument."
"You could head to the coffee-lounge downstairs. It’s quiet, they got stuff to read, and the chairs are the nicest in the place. You could relax."
"I don’t want to relax. Relaxing’s something you do after you spend the day not relaxing. You earn the right to relax. It ain’t living."
"Hey," said Marvin as he packed his saxophone away, "I know what ya’ mean. I get sick of playing this thing, there’s so little to keep you busy here. That ain’t never happened before."
"So tell me, Marv..."
It’s Marvin, Tone."
"Okay, I get the point. ‘Tone.’ You’re a funny guy.
"Anyway, if you could go do one thing you don’t get to do anymore, what would it be?"
"That’s easy. What I’d like is to build me one more motor," said Marvin.
"A motor? What kind of motor?"
"Oh, I dunno. A big block, like I built. A small-block Chevy - or a Ford. I’d build go-kart motors if somebody asked me."
Tony stared at Marvin in surprise.
"You mean racing motors," he said.
"Marvin," said Tony. "I had no idea. I thought you were a musician."
"I am a musician. But that didn’t pay the bills. I worked for Dave Powers. Built his motors for seven years. Plus motors for all kinds of street-rod guys."
"You know I raced stock cars, right?"
"Yeah, not that you ever talk about it."
"Well, I...I mean... I didn’t figure you had any interest in it."
"Why not?," said Marvin, adding with a laugh, "I’m a red-blooded American male."
"Well. I, uh..."
"Yeah. Well, I, uh - right. It ain’t the color of my blood, is it? It’s the color of my skin."
"Yeah, I know. Not many of us brothers in the stands at the Speedbowl. But we’re at the dragstrips. A few of us, anyway. ‘Cept for the bikes. There’s a ton of brothers racing bikes. Those crotch-rocket things, ya’ know?"
"Oh, yeah," said Tony. He did know. Those guys had his respect, too. "Can’t imagine hanging off of one of those things at 200-plus."
"Well," said Marvin, "neither can I. But I’d build one of’ em a motor in a heartbeat."
"So, who’s Dave Powers? I mean, I knew most of the guys running at the dragstrip."
"He didn’t run at the strip," said Marvin. "He drag-raced a boat."
"Don’t ‘Oh’ me. Those motors were everything any car motor was. I built plenty of engines for cars, too. So I know. They made big power."
"Okay, then," said Tony. "Ever build a motor for a stock car?"
"No, but like I said. I’d build anything."
Life was good for Dale Hammond, and tonight stood as the best of it.
He sat in his chair at the head table in a row of racers who represented the cream of the crop at the Spring Valley Speedbowl. Dale fully felt he belonged there. After all, he’d just been recognized as the Rookie of the Year in the Speedbowl’s Late Models, the headlining division at the fast and hairy third-mile of aging asphalt most folks simply called "The Bowl."
It was an impressive performance, particularly the last half of the season, when Dale overcame a disastrous first-few months that had resulted in two cars destroyed and a concussion for him. But then he won two races after Labor Day, including the 100-miler that capped off the season, and he hadn’t finished a late model race lower than seventh over its final two months.
Dale couldn’t wait until next year. With a full season driving for the Castle Brothers under his belt, the sky was the limit, the sky for Dale being the late model championship. Red Lee had just won it without even winning a race. Dale knew he was a better driver, and he was ready to prove it until Lee shook up the awards-banquet crowd by announcing that his car owner, Skip Stone, was retiring. No matter. Lee would be back driving for someone. Dale would get his chance for a piece of him now that he’d proven himself as legitimate competition for the fastest guys in the division.
Lee’s was the last acceptance-speech of the night. With it everyone began to drift out of the banquet hall. A crowd gathered at the coat room as folks bundled up before heading out into the bone-chilling night-air.
Dale noticed Freddie Castle standing in line. So did his father.
"So, Freddie, you guys ready for next year?" said Doug Hammond. "My kid sure is. He’s chomping at the bit already."
Castle mumbled something without looking at Dale or his dad.
"What was that?’ said Doug.
"Uh," said Castle, "we need to talk."
"We need to get to work," said Doug.
"Well, there’s something - uh, we need to talk."
"Talk about what?" said Dale. "We know what we have to do. I can get to work on the car this week. School is closed, you know? It’s winter vacation."
"Look. Why don’t you guys come by the shop Monday evening. Me and Lennie’ll be working."
"Great!" said Dale. "I’ll bring my tools."
"Just come by about six. Don’t worry about your tools."
"I like to use my own."
"Well, like I said. Let’s talk first."
The ride home was quiet. Neither Dale nor his dad could imagine what the issue was that Freddie Castle wanted to discuss. They were ready, and the team seemed ready to go. As Doug Hammond had implied, what was there to talk about?
"I bet I know what it is," he said finally. By then, they were almost home. "I bet they want to lower your percent of the purses. You know, they lost the Majestic Oil sponsorship. I bet they’re hurting for cash."
"That’s not good," said Dale.
"It doesn’t affect you. I’m sure they’re not going broke. They only have three races on the new car. I bet they don’t even need to do the motor. We won’t let them mess with us."
Monday evening could not come fast enough for Dale. He didn’t care about the money and hoped his dad wouldn’t make an issue out of it. The Castle Brothers fielded what many people thought was the best late model at the Bowl. It would be stupid to risk losing the track’s best ride for a few percentage-points in winnings.
Finally the time came to head over to the garage the brothers maintained for their landscaping business. Every light in the place seemed to be on, but when Dale and his dad stepped into the shop they were surprised to find the racecar parked with no one working on it at all. Instead they found Freddie and Lennie Castle sitting in the office.
"Hey guys," said Freddie. "Hey, Doug. Hey, Dale. Thanks for coming in."
"Well, of course we’re gonna be here," said Doug. "There’s work to do. Dale’s not looking to get out of it. He’s no prima donna, you know. You’ve got a driver who’s not afraid to pitch in."
"That’s kind of what we need to talk about," said Freddie.
"What?" said Doug.
The two Castle Brothers sat quietly, glancing at each other as if sharing a secret.
"Freddie," said Dale. "What’s up?"
"Look kid," said Freddie, "you gotta understand."
"Spit it out, Freddie," said Doug. "What is it? Quit beating around the bush."
"I’m not trying to...You need to understand..."
"We just agreed to put Red Lee in the car," said Lennie, interrupting his brother.
"We need to make a change. We can’t afford to lose cars anymore - not like we did last year. Red’s the most reliable driver in the late models. He’s won three titles. He just doesn’t crash..."
"He doesn’t win races, either," said Doug, his race turning red with anger.
"He’s won his share, Doug," said Freddie. "And the fact that he won another championship without a win just speaks even more to how well he stays out of trouble.
"You’re a good driver, Dale, but you’re still a kid. The older guys just take better care of the equipment. You’ll have your wins. But, well, you have to learn how to go fast by slowing down a little. You’re not the only kid out there who’s rough on cars. All you kids are. And Red’s without a ride. He was available. You can’t blame us.
"You’ll get another ride, I’m sure of it, you wait. Why I bet..."
"Enough," said Doug. "We don’t need to hang around so you can try to explain away your guilt. Thanks for nothing.
"C’mon. Dale. We’re done here."
Doug put his hand on Dale’s back, applying enough pressure to convey that their departure was not open to question. Dale, for his part, didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. He didn’t think he could have spoken anyway, at least not without losing it.
He couldn’t remember when he’d felt this bad. He felt like crying, but he wasn’t about to let that happen.