Monday, February 1, 2016

A night in Newark airport.

I got a call last night on my cell phone. Unusual, because if it isn't my daughters, my wife, or someone at work, the phone, which I pay through the nose for hardly rings.

To be completely candid, I welcomed the call. At my wife's behest, I had purchased the DVD of the final season of the soap opera "Downton Abbey," and my wife was overseeing a forced march through the English countryside like Boudica against the Romans in millennia past.

I had had enough of tea and elegant ladies and circumspection. I had had enough of elegant settings, the decline and fall of the old order and the inevitable melodrama that goes with it.

So when the phone rang, I picked it up with the eagerness of a public radio fundraiser.

"Jorge," the voice crackled at the other end. "It is Angel Diablo. I am changing planes in Newark and have four hours. Can we bend an elbow. I have until eleven until my next flight."

Angel Diablo was a light-hitting shortstop for the Seraperos de Saltillo when I played for them nearly 41 years ago. He and I were never close, but, still, we were teammates and we were friends, I'd say. We still were friends, somehow, though we hadn't really spoken for more than 20 minutes in the last four decades.

I didn't exactly relish the idea of getting the Simca out of the garage and driving to the swamps of New Jersey, to an airport roughly abutting a maximum security prison, but I looked at the TV, at the breastless mooning women with long strands of pearls and the dapper men who mooned over them, and I decided almost anything would be better, even a warm airport Budweiser, than swirling down the drain of the financially ruined gentry. I threw a coat on, kissed my wife, and slugged the Simca into gear.

Though I had just seen Lothar, my Croatan mechanic and perhaps the world's best Simca man, two weeks ago, I could tell from the outset that something was wrong with the machine. Running down the FDR Drive, I couldn't shift her out of second without hearing a metal-on-metal sound. I should, probably, have gotten off the highway at the 53rd Street exit, but I kept steaming south, down the FDR, to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, dodging Hondas on the BQE, over the Verrazano, the Goethals, and finally to the sump of Newark airport, a dry spot in a Jersey swamp.

I parked in the long-term lot where my two hours with Diablo would cost me just $22 and then I walked to terminal C, looking for a plastic processed emporium called "Beef and Brew," or "Chicken and Chug," I can't remember which.

Diablo was there with a plastic-made-to-look-like-frosted-glass-stein of suds in front of him. He was picking at a bowl of broken pretzel bits like a backhoe. He stood up when I came in. He was wearing a white dress shirt, opened at the collar, a blue-blazer and well-pressed blue jeans with brown-suede loafers. He had put on fewer than 20 pounds, by my estimate since his playing days, and he looked good.

In just moments a sallow waitress came over with another cold one for Diablo and a menu for me. I handed her back the menu--I was in no mood for food that began life frozen and would go to its end over-microwaved--and instead just order a Bud.

"You remember Karmen," he said to me, leaning back and balancing his particle-board chair on two legs. Karmen, the girl in the white dress had been my inamorata so many years ago. The last I heard, she had married a second baseman for the Guerreros de Oaxaca, the Oaxaca Warriors, named Erubiel Durazo. Durazo had four cups of coffee in the bigs as a utility man for the Detroit Tigers. He and Karmen settled in Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Motown and later divorced. In the meantime, Karmen had gotten her high school equivalency, her college degree and had completed her law degree at Wayne State University in Detroit.

I wanted, to be clear, to hear more about Karmen. We had lost touch after I left Saltillo. That was the way it had to be. But what kind of man wouldn't be curious about such moments in his life. However, Angel Diablo had other conversational plans. And I was, as usually, too diffident to probe.

"Do you remember," he veered, "Rico's? It was there you got your two free chicken dinners."

"I have often looked in this greatest of all cities for a place that comes close to Rico's," I told him. "But I have not found it."

"One night I had no money, many nights I had no money," Angel continued. "I had no money and I remembered Rico's gave you two free chicken dinners a month. I went in. I sat at your table and I said to Rico himself, that you lost a bet to me and that your chicken dinner was now mine."

I drained my beer and laughed.

"I wondered what happened to that pollo. I wish I had it now."

An announcement crackled over the loud speaker, it said that Angel's flight to Charlotte, North Caroline would be boarding in 30 minutes.

"I must go," he said to me, leaving a twenty on the varnish.

"This is on me," I said, throwing forty dollars down. "For the news of Karmen. And for solving the mystery of the chicken."

He laughed and I laughed.

We hugged goodbye, which I do not do well. And I walked toward the long-term lot and my Simca.

I drove home in second gear.

Never reaching top speed.

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