Earl had no idea why, after applying for what seemed like over a hundred jobs in the first two weeks of the long-awaited move out to the West Coast, he finally landed a job as an on-rotation mascot for the Santa Teresa Tardigrades. He knew nothing about baseball, even less about the minor leagues, but still not having it in him yet to turn down a potential bird in the hand, he decided to pencil in an interview between two others that day.
He arrived fifteen minutes early to a small cluttered office and recognized the man sitting in the desk, who had aged a good twenty years since whenever the photo was taken that he used for the avatar on the reply email Earl had received from him. Earl shook the man’s hand and once bidden sat upon a chair placed strangely beside his desk, not in front. Earl felt like he was being regaled by a jolly relative by the fireplace with tales of long since past, especially given the man’s warm and avuncular demeanor.
—So, when do you think you’ll be free to start?
—I beg your pardon?
—Ideally we want to begin right away, as there’s a fairly intensive training program before you start covering entire games. But if you have plans we can squeeze you in to Wednesday.
It was an interview unlike any Earl had ever had. It began with the man, one Mr. Nancy, utterly convinced that Earl was the right man for the job, and Earl in turn asking questions to Mr. Nancy with the express purpose of convincing him he was anything but. For example:
—I moved away from New York last month. I guess most of the hiring managers in my industry didn’t like that the company I worked for went out of business while I was a manager.
—Well, it couldn’t have been all your fault, could it?
—I don’t really know anything about baseball, is that a problem?
—Not at all. I mean, just look at me! Everything I know about the darn thing, I learned from Bull Durham.
As the interview progressed he threw away the already-thin pretense that he bothered to do any research on the position at all:
—So what does a mascot really do on the field, anyway? I don’t even remember the last time I’ve been to a game…
—The most important thing is to keep the crowd engaged, turned on. The ideal mascot will do anything to keep the client satisfied, anything at all. Keep in mind, this is the minor leagues after all, so a memorable performance can be the difference between a client coming back to a game and a client taking his business somewhere else.
In between questions and answers, Mr. Nancy would often grasp a nearby glass of orange juice and take a sip through a plastic bendy straw, never once taking his eyes off Earl during each pull.
—Well, of course. Every man, woman and child filling up those seats every afternoon. We want to make sure at the end of the day that every single guest sitting in those seats is sitting next to another person, all just as happy to be there as the next person.
—…I understand, it just seems like a weird way to put it. As if it’s all for one person, or…
—Oh, we’ll get into all that in training, don’t you worry about it. Now, I’m confident that you have exactly the thing I’m looking for, to go ahead and bring in that crowd I’m looking for! I was impressed with the resume you sent me, in fact. Years of experience in middle management, in customer service. That tells me you have a meticulous attention to detail, a willingness to see through every job, no matter how difficult, all the way to completion, a knack for picking up tasks after being told once, and most important of all… an open mind. An openness to take feedback, accept praise, and consider suggestions.
The next thing Earl knew, he found himself signing preliminary forms and getting scheduled by Mr. Nancy for a Wednesday training seminar, giving him time, as Mr. Nancy offered, to deliberate if the job was a good fit for him in light of the other two positions he was to pursue that day. Aside from that, he was promised full time, a rate of seventeen an hour (very generous to start considering, you understand, the recent minimum wage hike to fifteen in this state, Mr. Nancy was rather quick to hem and haw), and the promise of a bump to twenty and benefits and paid days off the following season (which, as even Earl was quick to catch, was a whole year from that day).
On top of baseball, it also transpired that Earl knew next to nothing about tardigrades. The commute home involved some biking and some riding on the light rail, which time in the latter he used to search online for whatever those things were. The more he learned about them, the more they haunted him to his core. He remembered seeing a strange fleshy beast with a cloaca mouth strewn about on posters in Mr. Nancy’s office, but had no idea they were the animals in question, for whatever reason assuming the man was some sort of weird boomer Lovecraft fan. The word itself only drummed up a vague idea of some kind of animal known for surviving in even the most extreme conditions, but he never once imagined them to be the hell-beast hanging above the smiling Mr. Nancy every day.
It got worse. As Earl continued his online search, he was shocked to discover that they were also microscopic. Not only were they in his imagination some freakish things that should not be, they were also invisible to the naked eye. Given that, along with their great talent for survival, Earl began to imagine tiny tardigrades living all around him, in the dark recesses of his apartment, deep in the covers of his futon, in the folds of his towels, crawling on his naked body after he dried himself off, even on his hands at that moment after touching the metal poles of the light rail, all right in front of his face in spite of his senses. It was the opposite of the mandala effect, it was a thing which everyone in the world except himself spent years accepting as true, and the more he gravitated toward the shared truth of their existence the more they horrified him.
Despite the several nightmares he would go on to endure for the week of little tardigrades crawling over his sleeping Gulliver body like bedbugs (another small living thing notorious in Earls mind for its refusal to die), Wednesday morning arrived with the travel agency never getting back to him and the menswear shop accidentally letting some giggles and gossip slip over the phone, the petty receptionist not realizing she wasn’t holding her hand over enough of the receiver. It’s just something to keep me alive until I can move to LA, Earl grumbled to himself as he called Mr. Nancy that morning. Just like a tardigrade.
He didn’t remember who said it, but Earl remembered a quote about the city he admired and often applied to his own situation: I came to the city to be alone. For all the gripes he had for his former home (and to be sure there were many), the one thing he could count on was that it was so densely populated that, if he ever had a less-than-pleasant interaction with a stranger (and to be sure there were many), chances were on his side that he would never see this person again.
He could not count on the same in this small coastal town. He was shocked to find, on the light rail ride to the stadium that morning, that he recognized not one but two men riding beside him. It made sense, Earl would later rationalize after he looked over the off-putting rail-thin, bird-like young man beside him, with unfortunate short facial hair and long wavy brown locks gelled and combed back to submission. The max capacity on this train had to be about a hundred between both cars, and he happened to be riding the same train at the same time on a weekday as yesterday, so this train had to be for his nine to five as well.
The other was not a man of flesh and blood, but one he recognized from public service announcements on local television, which seemed to air every fifteen minutes or so in between the baseball his roommate seemed to watch through every hour of the day, as if a fixture in the living room upon the couch itself. This was a man in his late forties with jowls and a paunch and a trimmed-down receding hairline all to compete with the best of over-the-hill white men, and smiling, always smiling.
Step outside and look up and all around you, the PSA exhorts the viewer. See those hills all around you, those steep magnificent slopes that surround our great city? Now look at the grass. Brown, dead, withering away. Was there ever a time that the grass on the hills was actually green? It’s true, an unassuming vox populi says, speaking into a microphone. The hills have dead grass day in and day out. It really gets to you sometimes. Something’s not right, says another, you got all these farmers growing oranges and almonds or whatever, meanwhile the rest of us have to look up at this dead grass all day. Just look at it. Look at the grass on the hills up there. Brown. Awful.
I’m Bobby Enfantino, the man in the posters, the star of the PSAs himself, says as he finally makes an appearance. Big agriculture wants nothing more than to hog all the water in this great state for themselves. And what about the rest of us? Mayor Holzer might be fine being in bed with the orange and nut farmers, but not me. Vote Enfantino for mayor, and I’ll make sure the hills grow green again.
The poster on the light rail above Earl said Vote Enfantino, he’ll make the hills green again in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
There was a surprisingly large amount of training involved in being a Tardigrades mascot, and comparatively little real mascotting. For what seemed like maybe three or four games out of the season that Earl would have to put on the Tardy suit, there was a solid nine to five Monday to Thursday regiment of seminars and training videos.
He found out rather quickly on the first day of training exactly how the Santa Teresa team decided to run with the tardigrade theme. Every fourth inning, Tardy would rally the crowd into a cheer or two, and then find himself pursued by another mascot, a fat umpire type, brandishing a baseball bat. On special occasions, a random audience member and a friend, selected by a raffle, would be invited down to the field to swing at Tardy with bats of their own, blindfolded and pre-spun around piñata-style. And who can forget the Tardigrade Dash, in which several other lucky guests try their athletic prowess in a foot race against Tardy. Should the guest win, he receives ten complimentary whacks against Tardy’s back with the bat of his or her choice. And in the rare instance Tardy proves the victor, well, not to worry, the guest still gets the consolation prize of doling out Tardy’s reward for winning, ten thwacks of the bat across Tardy’s stomach or back, customer’s choice. And of course, Tardy is expected to take all this punishment in stride and with a smile. After all, if tardigrades can live in active volcanoes, then surely it can withstand a bat or two?
Around day two or three, training surpassed being merely boring and soon became downright uncomfortable. Sessions were dominated by a series of animated films featuring Tardy himself, rendered in an old-fashioned Chuck Jones toon style in theme as well as aesthetics. For whatever reason, many of them featured Tardy being chased by rifle-toting hunters, much like the invincible Bugs Bunny and very much not, as Earl recently found out, like one can do with actual microscopic tardigrades. The films cribbed a whole lot of material from the original cartoons, in fact. An awful lot of tying bow ties around the business ends of the guns, then untying them in time for the shot to go off in the hunter’s face and leave a sooty smoldering mess, a lot of replacing “tardigrade hunting season” signs with “hunter hunting season,” and who can forget the old “accidentally run over a cliff and don’t fall until you look underneath you to see you’re no longer on solid ground” trick?
On the first day or so, the only real objection Earl had to it all was the borderline-offensive name of the mascot himself. But one day things took a turn: The film started with a classic Bugs bit, as usual. The hunters, guns poised to do the deed and secure the mounted cloaca mouth head above the fireplace, are instead met with a cross-dressed Tardy, a sexy tardigrade in an elegant red velvet dress, bright red lipstick around the cloaca mouth lips, and long flowing black eyelashes above what were Earl’s educated guess as to the thing’s eyes. In a seductive for the 1950s-era voice and a little sashay, Tardy coaxes the other hunters to help “her,” being one to always rely on the kindness of strangers as she was. Oh, you big strong young men, you’ll help a poor defenseless woman like me, won’t you? As Tardy puckers her big red lips and waves her long eyelashes up and down like a weeping willow in the wind, the young men’s hearts beat out of their chest, their eyes turn to literal red beating heart-shapes and their legs stamp the ground like they’re throttling the stick-shift of whatever Model-T inside them going awooooooga.
The way these young men helped poor Tardy against the other hunters changed every time: sometimes she begs them to learn an advanced lethal combination of hapkido, judo, and shotokan karate so they can snap their necks in one blow. Look at these pressure points right here, she tells them in a sultry coo, this one on the neck can paralyze a grown three hundred pound man, and this one? That’ll stop their heart within sixty seconds. Another time, she hands them butterfly knives and tells them that only complete disembowelment will do for those ruffians, and simply nothing less. Or, she tells them another time, you’d be surprised how easy it actually is to mix this much gasoline with that much sawdust or what have you to make a pipe bomb, or to pipe a little carbon monoxide into their bedrooms at night, or to inject a little laundry detergent directly into their aorta, or to sneak up on them and strangle them to death with a piano cord, quick, silent, efficient.
Every time this happens, and in the middle of the ensuing cartoon carnage that happens, Earl always looks around to the other trainees for just a single what the fuck, a modicum of acknowledgement from just one other person that maybe we shouldn’t be watching this stuff every day. Nothing. Every single guy in the room just watches the screen, many of them matching the same dumb grin of the horny hunters. Then the cartoon ends and the seminar continues, and no one ever speaks of it again.
He bumped into his friend, as he was calling him now, on the light rail one evening on the way home, as usual. This time he was with a friend, someone maybe four years or so older, and very much a colleague of the man’s from wherever they worked, which Earl couldn’t figure out by the dense jargon they employed in their chat.
This time, his hair wasn’t gelled back, but rather rolled up in a bun in the back, not necessarily a man-bun so much as the device of a man with unfortunate long hair who had to do what he had to do. There was another thing: this was also the first time he heard him speak. And it was undeniable, he had the voice. You know, from that David Cross bit. Not all gay men have it, but only gay men have it. His last sort-of boyfriend didn’t care for that joke, and he had to admit it was a little reductive whether or not he found it to be true. Still, in his own mind, on the train, and for classification purposes for the guy in front of him he’d never speak to, well, surely there’s no harm in that?
That train ride home turned out to be the highlight of his whole day. If Earl didn’t immediately warm up to his new job on the first day of training, his first day on the job, as a Tardy in a real game, made him want to quit on the spot. He found that it was not difficult per se to dance around for a moment or two before getting assaulted by a bloodthirsty fan with an aluminum bat so much as it was just profoundly unpleasant. The worst part of it all was the supervisor Tardy accompanying him. A Tardy mascot experienced in the ways of a usual Tardigrades game, who encouraged the bat-swinging lucky fans to put a little more elbow grease in their swings, to go ahead, don’t be scared, make it hurt on the newbie as much as it did for his first game. The one who endures suffering in an unjust institution, Earl would go on to remember, always takes advantage of offers to wield even marginal power against those below him, and the tormented more often than not inevitably becomes the tormentor. It added insult to injury to have not only endure the blows of fans, their eyes widening with the lure of violence married with permission to do so, but also acknowledge the seniority of one in exactly the same position as he was who was simply in it a little longer. For one thing, it made him glad he never had to endure a public education in Japan.
Every day was worse than the one that came before it. He was equal parts bored and horrified by the everyday training sessions, as dry as a day in middle school with a substitute teacher who puts on a video and takes a nap for the rest of the period, sleeping through all the parts where the cartoon characters look at the camera and beg you to kill for them.
And as bad as the occasional games were for Earl, today’s was poised to be the worst of all: Earl was scheduled for the coming weekend to perform a VIP session. For those lucky few who secure tickets in a private suite, one of its perquisites was a special in-booth performance with your own Tardy. With affordable time slots starting at a half hour, a lucky group could swat at their personal Tardy an unlimited number of swings with the convenience of not having to leave it up to the chance of a raffle, their own piñata that would never break. Earl’s group booked for three and a half hours from the first pitch.
Three and a half fucking hours. For a longer amount of time it takes a normal person to watch Lawrence of Arabia, he had to endure a pack of fat, beer-swilling, hooting and cackling white men whipping his backside with a metal bat and pretend that it didn’t hurt at all, in fact, it felt really good and they could do it all night if they wanted. It gave him goosebumps, it made him feel filthy inside and out, like he was one of those unfortunate strippers who got accidentally murdered in a freak horny bachelor-party accident and disappeared in a ditch somewhere during an impromptu stop in the Nevada desert. He imagined his epitaph as Hey Man, What Happens in the VIP Tardigrades Booth, Stays in the VIP Tardigrades Booth.
All this was still on his mind when he made the call to Mr. Nancy to tell him that his bike had suffered a flat tire and, secretly to his relief, he would probably be unable to make his shift today.
—Ah, doggone it, well that’s no good, is it? Well, I’ll tell you what, where are you now?
—Where, am I now? Uh… Camden Ave and… Montanita Drive?
—Camden and Montanita? Hm. Well… okay, sure. Tell you what, just stay put and I’ll be right there. About twenty minutes?
He hung up before Earl could ask for any explanation, and lacking any other options, not to mention any other backbone, he stood by the side of the road with his flat bike and waited for Mr. Nancy. Around the nineteenth minute he started to feel anxious, and fought the urge to call his boss again, when sure enough a light-blue minivan peeled up beside him and screeched to a halt.
—Sit tight and I’ll put the seats down.
The next thing he knew, he was buckled up in the passenger side of Mr. Nancy’s van, heading to a bike shop he knew of nearby the stadium that was sure to get Earl’s bike just right as rain in no time. The man had a handful of almonds, which he popped in his mouth two or three at a time before offering some to Earl.
—They’re good for you. Good for your brain, lots of protein and the good kind of fat.
Earl politely refused and Mr. Nancy shoved a few more in his mouth.
—Nothing better than a handful of almonds, that’s what I always said. You know, our last president used to eat a handful of almonds every night. And look at everything he got done. And now… Well, what are you gonna do, right?
He winked at Earl. He actually winked. Until that moment Earl had never seen a real live person ever wink at another person in real life. He thought that gesture only existed in movies and cartoons before the year 1952.
—Well, uh… I mean, thanks for the ride, Mr. uh… sir…
—Please, call me Frank when we’re off hours. And of course. You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?
Earl being Earl had to of course create a scenario that existed in his head for half a second in which he was an old but friendly mascot manager for a minor leagues team and the new hire Frank Nancy needed a ride to the bike shop so he could be ready in time to get beaten by a cadre of baseball fans in a private booth where no one could hear his screams, but after it passed he mumbled something in deferential agreement.
Mr. Nancy had the radio on, which Earl only noticed because during the commercial interruption he heard a familiar voice.
—Bobby Enfantino, huh? He’ll get those hills green again, or so he says.
—Can’t seem to get away from this guy…
—What’s that now?
—Oh, uh, this guy, Bobby Enfantino. I keep seeing him on billboards, on TV…
—Ha! Is that so now? Well, I imagine you’ll be seeing him just that much more tonight. Guess who booked your private event tonight?
—Wha… you mean, he… I’m going to…
—That’s right, mister man. Bobby Enfantino and his whole entourage.
Earl couldn’t even feign being shocked or impressed by this news. Instead, a deep sadness overcame him, thoughts of what did he get himself into, did he make the right choice moving out here, and not the least of which, how was he going to get through tonight.
—What’s the matter?
—Oh, nothing, just…
—Well, let’s hear it.
—No, it’s okay… it’s not really, I mean… I don’t think it’s stuff an employee should tell a boss…
The radio changed back to the music. Now that he was paying attention, they were listening to all the songs the stadium played on rotation, but in the car. And they had been stuck in traffic for so long, it had taken so long for them to drive out of the way to whatever bike shop he was taking him, that they had cycled through a whole cornucopia of turn-of-the-century jock jams.
A lonely mother gazing out at the window staring at a son that she just can’t touch
If at any time he’s in a jam, she’ll be by her side, but he doesn’t realize he hurts her so much
—Oh, never mind all that. I’m nothing at all compared to you, you’re the star of the whole dang show. I’m only here to make sure you can do the best job you can do, and a big part of that is making sure you’re happy. Now, what is it?
But all the praying just ain’t helping at all cause he can’t seem to keep his self out of trouble
He remembered the song that came on in the painful lull of the conversation. A real oldie but goodie, huh?
So he goes out and he makes his money the best way he can, another body laying cold in the gutter
Listen to me…
—I mean, I’m not sure I’m trying to say I want to quit just yet, but…
Don’t go chasing waterfalls
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to
—I’m not sure I’m cut out for all this. It’s… violent, I guess. I mean never mind it’s a sporting event, and sports are always married to violence. They make you stand for the national anthem, they have military displays, and the object is always about physically beating the other team into submission… it’s not art, it’s not ideas exchanged back and forth, it’s just physical struggle and domination. And now, I’m a part of it, and it’s even a part of being the mascot. The whole thing is just oh, look at that freak animal thing, wouldn’t it be funny if we tried to beat it to death and it didn’t work? It’s a display of power and nationalism and… and fascism really, and reinforcing the idea of how we’re all separate from the other in this game that’s as American as apple pie, and I participate in it and accept checks from it and I come home every night trying to pretend it doesn’t all affect me in some deep psychological level, but… I mean…
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all
Mr. Nancy took all this in, not angry, not disappointed, and not even any of, worst of all, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” He instead nodded and smiled as if years ago he was a tardigrade mascot in his own right, and dreaded the thwacks of the bats himself, until a fateful minivan ride of his own with an affable mentor and employer.
But I think you’re moving too fast
—Well, I can’t say I don’t know how you feel, but I gotta tell you, you’re wrong about one thing. Baseball isn’t violence. It’s a game you gotta use your head for as much as your arms and legs. Sure, we come together under the summer afternoon sun and sure, we might sing the national anthem and show for a brief moment we’re proud of where we come from, but then… oh, Earl my friend, but then… it’s a party. It’s a celebration of athletic and mental prowess alike. It’s a celebration of youth and vigor that anyone can partake of, no matter how old or young. And no matter the outcome, the players all line up and shake hands. The winner says I may have bested you, but I acknowledge the struggle your best efforts put me though to earn that victory, and the loser says you may have won this time, but I thank you for the lesson to help me improve my game… And the dance of the mascot is just as special as the game itself. It stirs up the hearts of everyone gathered, a whole microcosm of human comedy and tragedy. When you dance and run away from the bats, you’re reminding everyone, as much as the inevitability of death, the continuation of life as well. In other words, baseball, my friend… baseball is as much an expression of pure love as any there ever was. Love, Earl, baseball is love.
…his health is fading and he doesn’t know why three letters took him to his final resting place…
The long moment of silence that followed after that confession lasted almost to the point where Earl could no longer bear it, but finally his driver pulled into a small bike shop.
…what a shame, you shoot and aim for someone else’s brain
—Here we are. Now I’ll stay put here until the shop can make sure you can get back on your bike. So you do what you need and I’ll look for the high sign from you to get along. That sound fair?
You claim the insane and name this day in time for falling prey to crime I say the system’s got you victim to your own mind
—Oh, and one more thing.
Earl, if you gave him a million dollars to come up with just anything, still would not have been able to tell you why, after Mr. Nancy called out his name for one last bit, he decided not to pretend he didn’t hear him, stopped in his tracks, after pulling his limp bike out of Mr. Nancy’s trunk, turned and faced his employer. Nor did he ever in a million years expect Mr. Nancy’s to respond the way he did.
—I’ve always loved you, and I’m pretty sure I always will.