Third Base | An Excerpt from Finding the Last Hungry Heart by David K. Leff

About the Book: Come to the confluence of the present and the 1960s. Caleb Dempster, a disillusioned refugee from that turbulent era makes his living operating a municipal landfill, dealing with the waste of a society he’d once strived to change. One night Dempster catches some teens climbing the landfill fence in the hope of spotting a bear that’s feeding on the garbage. The kids’ interest in Dempster’s past, including a wild cross-country hitchhiking trip, enables him to see some value in experiences that had only tormented him with disappointment. Following some hardball small town politics and violence, the kids enable Dempster to triumph by finding value in what he had thought was a wasted youth of unfulfilled promises.

On my usual stool, I sat with elbows leaning into the shiny
black marble counter where I perched three times
a week, once for breakfast twice for dinner at the Third Base
Diner whose pretzeled neon sign above a streamlined
stainless skin proclaimed: “For a Meal Closest to Home.”
I chatted about the Red Sox poor prospects with owner Nicky
Kakridis as he worked the grill with a ballet dancer’s grace
and platoon commander’s authority. The griddle sizzled
around the spatchula’s percussive scrape as he turned eggs,
tended grilled cheese, fried bacon and sausage links.
He’d shuffle the batting order, send manager Valentine
packing and rest righty slugger Ortiz with his bum wheels.

Fifteen stools, still half full late on a Tuesday morning,
the place hummed with conversation about upcoming
elections and a school’s construction. At the counter’s end
with a coffee was Nicky’s dad, old Ari, who had the place
shipped from Jersey in 1950 to its spot on the green
between a brownstone and brick town hall and white
clapboard library with tall columns, a site where a colonial
house become an office had burned years earlier.
A little worn with time, it was still a gleaming eatery with sky
blue terrazzo floors, cobalt upholstery, and gray
panels on a barrel ceiling.

Only five-foot-four, dried and sunken in his 80s, Ari
had been a dynamo back in the day, wiry and strong, living
in a Macedonian cave two years fighting the Nazis
before stowing on a New York bound freighter,
working like a demon and saving for this dream. Legendary
for besting two gun toting robbers back in ‘71, he made
like he was going for the register, instead pulling a heavy
glass sugar canister from beneath the counter
and hitting the gunman on the temple sending him running,
his revolver flying. Quickly grabbing the second guy
twice his size, he beat the crap out of him
as the dishwasher dialed the cops. Hammering the man
within an inch of life, Ari was arrested but charges
were dropped. Now, with eyesight fading
and Nicky’s mom gone a decade, he sat on his stool
like an oracle, still quick with a story or quip, telling a boy
last year that he’d double date him at the prom
if the kid would go to the cemetery and shovel
out one of Ari’s old girlfriends. Would I wind up like the old
man, sitting on a salvaged lawn chair
in front of the dump’s office trailer telling stories?

Breakfast was always black coffee, two eggs over easy
on a pancake, home fries and a double helping of the corned
beef hash Nicky ground from boiled Irish dinners
left after Monday’s special. “Pitching is key,”
I was telling him, “fresh arms—a good setup man
and a closer, at least two decent starters, a righty
and a southpaw.” Nicky turned from the grill
where he was laying out lettuce
and tomato for three BLTs and flashed
me a skeptical look as he spread mayo on toast.
Before he could answer,
Mickey Lamb was coming at me from a booth at the far end,
having just peeled off some bills for his check.

“Leave my kid alone,” he said, sticking a big
finger in my chest.

“Back off,” I said, brushing the finger away.

“You back off and keep away from my kid.”
His voice grew louder with each word, his breath
full of Nicky’s onion omelet.
“Stop filling his head with your tie-dyed hippie crap.
You work in garbage and serve it to him and his friends dirtier
than you got it.” Lamb was a big guy with bulldog cheeks
and dark hair. A local contractor, he was built like a boxer,
raced at Lime Rock and had a sixth sense about machines.
“I don’t want him coming home and telling me about your trip
to Woodstock, banging a bunch of braless
broads and smoking pot.”

“What are you talking about? I never was at Woodstock.
And everything I’ve told them is true.” His eyes
focused with anger, a vein pulsed on his forehead.

“I don’t care if it’s true or not, it’s still bullshit,”
he shouted. “When Justin goes on eBay and buys a short
school bus he wants to paint psychedelic colors
and drive around like a yahoo, I know where the inspiration
comes from.” I put my hands into a timeout T.

“First of all, I can’t stop Justin and his buddies
from coming to the dump. It’s public property. Second,
those kids were into the whole sixties
scene long before talking to me—music, clothes, lingo,
the works—and you know it. And it’s a lot better
than some of the shit high schoolers get into today.
He’s your kid. If you don’t want him there, just tell
him to stay away.” Lamb stuck his finger in my chest again.
“Oh yeah, that’s your wet dream. You know full well
that dad coming down heavy will just
make him want it more. I’m warning you, this is going . . . .”
A palm pressed against my shoulder.
Nicky pushed us apart.
“You stay out of this. It’s not about you,” Lamb said.

“Had your meal, glad you enjoyed it. Now’s time to go.
Let Caleb finish breakfast in peace.” Lamb reared
up like a bear, thumbs in belt loops.
“I told you this is between me and Dempster.
It’s got nothing to do with you.”
Nicky glanced down the counter.
“You’re upsetting my father, so please go.”
Lamb took a deep breath. “Okay, but just for your father.
As for you,” he said turning toward me, “better lay off
my kid, ‘cause I’m not done.”

 

 

Hungry_Heart_Final_smFinding the Last Hungry Heart

A Novel in Verse by David K. Leff

Now Available! | List Price: $17.95 | On Sale: $14.35

About the Book: Enter a world where the past is present and stories matter. Teens climb a landfill fence, the 1960s come alive, and a disillusioned refugee from those turbulent years rediscovers himself.

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